John Leguizamo is a complicated man, a man full of contradictions and seemingly mutually exclusive ideas. He has turned this premise into a long career as a character actor and performance artist.
His latest, apparently untitled, one man act utilizes many facets of his personality, often playing them off one another. Here, he plays up his “street” side, dropping Spanish slang, bragging about his “Manny-Hatty” upbringing and dressing like a man who is much, much younger than his 45 years. He also plays up his sophistication, discussing postmodern New York performance artists and exclusive acting schools. And, of course, he also plays to the crowd, telling anecdotes of brushing shoulders with the likes of Robert DeNiro and Dennis Hopper.
The show is often hysterical. Most all of the celebrity anecdotes hit, and the on-going gags about his inability to separate his real life from his method acting training are very entertaining. But, at the same time, the show seems to mimic Leguizamo’s mental topography: It is a show at war with itself. Is it a show about a prodigal son proving himself? Is it about the minority experience? Is it about celebrity name-dropping and embarrassing tell-all stories? Is it a confessional? Is it boasting? I don’t know, and I don’t think Leguizamo knows either.
The two most prominent elements of the show detail Leguizamo’s complicated relationship with his abusive father and his later years, working his way up the Hollywood ladder. Though Leguizamo has lived both of these lives, he does not seem to have found a way to balance these two worlds or to find a connection between them. Perhaps it is because he has already done several (rather brilliant) shows about his upbringing, but the Hollywood material is both richer and more deeply felt than the components that examine the father-son dynamic.
What begins as a series of loosely related stories about slapping Sean Penn and smoking pot with Harrison Ford slowly transforms into a more honest discussion of a man contending with his own ego and his deeply felt need for acceptance. The set-up punch line structure of the show fades away as jokes from the first half turn into emotional sucker punches during the second. Leguizamo clearly relishes telling stories about one-upping Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal, stepping on their toes by going off script with snappy, often unfriendly one-liners. He mocks their superstar egos and their discomfort at his scene stealing only to later return to the same story on another set with himself in the place of the star.
These stories would each be affecting and funny on their own, but their juxtaposition against each other adds a deeper element. The fact that the audience laughed and cheered during the first half only makes his later admission of his own shortcomings all the more compelling. Unfortunately, the more painful and honest moments of the show are few and far between. The central theme of the show appears to be based on Leguizamo’s unspoken fear that as an actor over 40, he has become culturally irrelevant. If he would admit this fear more openly, this show might carry some weight, but as it stands, the specter of the ticking clock of youth remains underutilized and, as a result, the show feels more like a midlife crisis on stage.
Leguizamo is certainly an engaging and dynamic performer. He knows how to tell a story and how to set up a punch line that turns into a moment of honesty, but this show is not there yet. Fortunately it is still a work in progress; one hopes his preemptive comeback act doesn’t necessitate a real one.