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|A CurtainUp Review
By Allan Wallach
John Leguizamo makes his entrance in Freak, by bursting through a ring of paper. The implicit promise is that he'll jump through hoops in his efforts to entertain us, and he certainly keeps it over the course of two acts. He flings himself against walls, clambers into a box seat, tumbles offstage, crumples under a barrage of verbal and physical abuse and-most important-transforms himself into a large slice of New York's population.
There's another promise, though, that a lot of us felt was implicit in his two Off-Broadway shows, Mambo Mouth (1991) and Spic-o-Rama (1993). We Leguizamo admirers were convinced he would continue to deepen his shrewdly comic take on himself, his Latino family and the often-hostile world around them. But his new one-man show at Broadway's Cort Theater isn't deeper than the earlier ones, just broader.
Leguizamo has widened his lens to take in a multi-ethnic gallery that includes Indian street vendors, pugnacious Irish, insulting Italians, macho blacks and scornful white frat brothers. But the potentially most interesting character in Freak, Leguizamo himself, seems to be hiding behind all those other people. Instead of giving us what he says he will--"a piece of my soul"--he offers a constantly moving target, an elusive figure constructed out of shtick. The central struggle is between Leguizamo and his hard-drinking father, who alternates between putting him down and punching him out. At one point, the father asks him, "Why are you always trying to be like other people? You're not even good at being yourself." But on the evidence of this show, the real self is an amalgam of all those other people. Leguizamo is a superb mimic, and he can become someone else with a goofy smile or a defeated sag of his shoulders. Among his best creations are a deaf, gay uncle he converses with in Spanglish sign language and a dotty grandmother who tries to exorcise his demon with a spray of Jack Daniel's.
He also moves with the catlike grace of a dancer, and he sprinkles the show with sharp lines. Describing his parents' move from Puerto Rico to a New York tenement, he observes, ``Their English was so bad they couldn't understand each other.'' Recalling the time he tried to pick up a woman in an Irish bar ("You know the type, redheaded, freckled, drunk"', he says he proceeded "to Riverdance" over to her and pass himself off as Irish.
The show's disappointments may have something to do with changes made on its long journey to Broadway. Its initial performance, in August of 1997, at P.S. 122 in New York, was followed by productions at Chicago's Goodman Theater and Theater on the Square in San Francisco. Leguizamo and David Bar Katz, who directed and developed the piece, may have listened too intently to the audiences along the way. They seem all too willing to give audiences the kind of things they laughed at in comedy clubs.
There's an almost desperate eagerness to please in such raunchy crowd-pleasers as a bit in which the young Leguizamo discovers the joys of masturbation (during which he tries to lift furniture with a body part not intended for such heavy lifting) and another in which a voracious German woman initiates him into sex in the kitchen of a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. The audiences at the performance I attended greeted this stuff with gleeful clapping, but it has more to do with standup-comedy riffs than autobiography-even the kind Leguizamo calls "semi-demi-quasi-pseudo autobiography."
The most spurious segment comes at the end, when Leguizamo switches to old-time Broadway sentimentality. When he pays tribute to the father who'd given him such a hard time, you know he's got to be kidding.