You don’t have to have come of age in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s to love John Leguizamo’s “Ghetto Klown.”
But it helps. It also helps to understand Spanish and street life from the 70s, but if you don’t there’s plenty in Leguizamo’s hilarious one-man show.
His stories trace from his hardscrabble childhood in Queens to starring in this at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre. He’s plumbed some of this ground before in other one-man shows: “Freak,” “Sexaholic … A Love Story,” “Mambo Mouth” and “Spic-O-Rama.”
Yet Leguizamo’s done enough living in his 46 years and is such a keen observer and excellent mimic that this feels fresh. Like everyone, his childhood formed him, but unlike everyone, he can take what still feels raw and make it very funny.
He was so poor as a kid, Leguizamo says, “Crooks would break into our house and leave things.”
The set is the back of a typical borough building. “We never left our little ghettorific neighborhood.” Against a screen that shows photos from each era, beginning with the ’60s, Leguizamo tells how he climbed out of the ghetto. His first performance was in an unlikely place – over the P.A. system on the 7 train.
After kicking in the conductor’s “boof” – “We could not afford the ‘th’ ” to say booth – he did impressions over the loudspeaker and was arrested. He was taken to the 110th precinct, and a photo flashes on the screen. He notes how the police station looked like a school, but his school, Murry Bergtraum High School, looked like a prison.
A teacher who believed in him gave him the number of an acting instructor. She was ancient and sounded like Katharine Hepburn, and he calls her Tweety because of the three hairs on her head. She did the best thing one could for a ghetto kid – she gave him direction, and even more important, plays. He learned that “no matter how f***ed up your life is, you could put it down on paper.”
And so he has. We get the impressions of first loves and broken hearts, of actors he worked with, and how his career evolved. Leguizamo was constantly on auditions with the other Latino guys around his age — Benicio del Toro, Benjamin Bratt, Esai Morales.
Leguizamo’s first break was playing a drug dealer on “Miami Vice,” where he tried using his Strasberg Method acting. This did not impress the director. On “Executive Decision,” he ad libbed with Kurt Russell, who didn’t appreciate Leguizamo’s jokes, but they were kept in the movie.
Leguizamo infuriated Al Pacino, who called him a clown while they were making “Carlito’s Way.”
Through it all, he had his touchstones of Ray Ray, his best friend, whom Leguizamo put on the payroll, and lifelong rejection from his father. His parents were furious with him for using them in his plays.
The best dramatic moment comes when Leguizamo reaches someplace dark and deep and talks about how it made him feel so awful to make his father cry.
Most of the time, though, he makes us laugh. The stories he tells of “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar” had people screaming they were laughing so hard. He refers to his co-stars as Patrick “Crazy” Swayze and “the blackest man in America” Wesley Snipes, and tells of how he had to make himself “look as hot as possible.”
It was on that movie that Leguizamo began pursuing the woman who became his second wife and mother of his children. Of course, getting drunk and eating a plate of fried insects may not have been his finest moment, but it makes for one of the best stories, and “Ghetto Klown” is full of them.