It's hard to determine who exactly comes out ahead when John Leguizamo hits the Lyceum Theatre stage in his new one-man show: the audience or him?
"I love spilling my guts out for you," the actor and playwright says at the beginning of "Ghetto Klown," which opened Tuesday. "You're like free therapy. I should be paying you tonight."
If only all therapy was this fun.
Leguizamo's pain has always been our gain through five deeply personal shows, and his new one is no exception. "Ghetto Klown" is filled with hysterical stories about Leguizamo being repeatedly slapped by Sean Penn, how he reconciled with his father, got high with Kurt Russell or tried to impress his future wife by eating a plate of fried grasshoppers.
This fifth installment of his life _ following 1991's "Mambo Mouth," 1993's "Spic-O-Rama," 1998's "Freak," and 2001's "Sexaholix ... a Love Story" _ is mostly about his career, taking us chronologically from his days as a hyper teen in New York who would seize the conductor's microphone on the subway to do imitations, through his drug dealer parts on "Miami Vice" to starring roles in "Carlito's Way" and "To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" to the four other Broadway one-man shows.
He has been aided this time by director Fisher Stevens, a longtime friend who has tightly edited the free-flowing, kinetic Leguizamo and nicely integrated dancing, sound effects and video projections. Many of the trite expositions and unnecessary narration of his previous shows have been cut in favor of purer emotion. The Leguizamo-Stevens partnership is clearly a fruitful one.
Leguizamo is working hard here as usual, mimicking his childhood friends, his acting teachers, agents, parents and co-stars. He dances to music from each of the passing decades, holds telephone conversations as both voices, interacts with the projected images, slips from Spanish to English effortlessly, jumps on stools and sips from a beer bottle.
It is a sobering show. By his own account, his path back to Broadway after a decade hasn't been easy and he warns the audience that what they're seeing is a "cautionary tale."
All kinds of things have conspired to keep Leguizamo from attaining real fame _ bad roles, bad timing, depression, poor advice, boredom, love. "Maybe you have too much talent," says his fed-up agent at one point.
The title comes from no less a figure than Al Pacino, who while working on "Carlito's Way" with Leguizamo, got exasperated with his co-star's hyperactivity and ad-libbing. "Oh my God. Just be yourself, you clown," he told Leguizamo.
Naturally, there are references and characters from previous shows _ childhood friends, girlfriends, wives and, of course, his parents _ but there are all new stories, such as the sad, explosive end to his ties with RayRay, one of his oldest friends.
There are also genuinely hysterical moments, as when a Method-crazed Penn smacks Leguizamo full-force in the face during take after take while filming "Casualties of War" in Thailand. "And then they ended up cutting that scene out," he says sadly.
Penn gets off relatively easy. Steven Seagal comes across as a buffoon, director Baz Luhrmann as an oddball, and the network executives who killed Leguizamo's TV series "House of Buggin'" as cynical flimflammers. But he mostly blames himself for his poor money-keeping skills and wasted chances.
Leguizamo also explains why it has taken him so long to get back on stage: His parents got upset after seeing their son air the family's dirty laundry. Both even threatened to sue. Only after making peace with them _ and thanks to a big nudge from his wife _ has he been able to return to his series of plays.
And that, as we've learned, means everyone wins.
"I realized being on stage is my religion," Leguizamo says at the end. "Sharing my unhappiness on stage is my happiness."
Let us hope he is unhappy for a long time to come.