John Leguizamo in Ghetto Klown

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

You might not immediately know the name John Leguizamo, but you will almost certainly have seen him in something, as his packed CV of supporting roles includes Carlito’s Way, Moulin Rouge, ER, Romeo + Juliet and, erm, the Super Mario Bros movie.

He’s also had five broadly autobiographical one-man shows on and off Broadway, proving that an actor’s favourite topic is always himself. In Ghetto Klown, with which he makes his British debut, he again turns to theatre as therapy, putting his history, his failings and his angst under the microscope.

The result is an honest, warm and funny slice of self-analysis, packaged in a slick, tightly-directed bundle which showcases his considerable performance skills. At times the routines are perhaps little too well-practised, reducing potential emotional empathy to the level of a polished anecdote, but Leguizamo’s a vibrant, eminently watchable actor and thoroughly engaging storyteller. It means that even sections about apparently facile facets of his tale - such as the need to get the work-life balance right now he is married with kids - remain interesting.

Ghetto Klown starts as a typical New York story, before mixing in a little Hollywood. Leguizamo was born in Columbia but raised from an early age in a fairly grotty area of Queens, where he learned his gift for performing (or just plain old showing off) on the street corners and on the 7 Train, where he was arrested after hijacking the PA system. Despite his troublesome tendencies, a schoolteacher spotted his talent and set him on the path to the stage, where he was tipped either as as the Latino Olivier – or the Latino Seinfeld. His brusque father, firmly of the old school, was less impressed at his career choice, but parental scorn only spurred Leguizamo on.

These early parts of the story are the most compelling, with Leguizamo taking on the characters of various family members, shady characters and theatrical types – including his delightful old Jewish agent and his less delightful coke-addled son.

So he gets his first break on Miami Vice as – who’d have thought it of a Latino actor? – a member of a drugs gang. The pressures of having to compromise his artistic ideals for well-paid work on TV and film compared to the infinitely more personal theatrical offerings is one theme here; not the most strikingly original, but covered with a light touch. The same could be said of his recollections of a romantic relationship that foundered on neglect and lack of communication.

More interesting his his ill-fated bromance with Ray, a friend from the streets he brought with him on his ride from the ghetto up to the Hollywood B-list, employing him as an assistant and even a writer on his short-lived Fox sketch show House of Buggin\'. But a 30-year friendship was over in an instant in a row over money, an incident that’s treated almost too lightly here.

Leguizamo’s mimicry brings the second part of the tale to life. He’s hilarious as a preposterously pompous Steven Seagal or an impatient Al Pacino – clearly seeing no need to kowtow to Hollywood royalty – and his barbed depiction of the strident, pretentious poetry of his first wife is a highlight. He also dances nimbly through the decades, quite literally demonstrating his moves. And when he recreates a disco encounter while on speed, at suitably high-tempo, it’s a lovely demonstration of physical comedy.

All these talents help the audience be as absorbed as he is in his navel-gazing, even when it risks slipping into self-indulgence or psycho-babble. Neat visuals projected onto a giant screen add a touch of class, too.

This show’s satisfyingly enjoyable in its own right, but also generates an appetite for Leguizamo’s earlier shows, which centred on the more fascinating aspects of his background and his family, and even caused his father to instigate legal proceedings against him. Shame we never got to see them in London, but this seems a good introduction to the mind of a rags-to-riches actor still racked by uncertainties.

Review date: 28 Oct 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Charing Cross Theatre

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