The ongoing saga of John Leguizamo, a survive-and-tell Latin monologist, rolled into a fifth chapter, Ghetto Klown, which opened March 22 at the Lyceum Theatre.
After two previous Broadway installments (1998's Freak and 2002's Sexaholix . . . A Love Story) and a couple of first-person forays Off-Broadway to test the waters (1991's Mambo Mouth and 1993's Spic-0-Rama), the 46-year-old performer still has a lot to say for himself as he slithers, chameleon-like, through the story of his life, playing himself and all who cross his winding path.
Klown is Al Pacino's word—hopefully, not his spelling — for Leguizamo when Leguizamo threw him an unscripted curve while the cameras were turning on "Carlito's Way." Seeing Big Al freeze, derail and rail in character is a pretty hilarious spectacle, as are similar head-butts with Patrick Swayze while filming 1995's "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar" and Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal while filming 1996's "Executive Decision" — always over the same issue: Leguizamo's compulsion for loose-cannon ad-libbing.
It was an early calling. While in his teens, he broke into a subway conductor's compartment and started making with the funnies over the loud speaker before being vigorously brought down and hauled off to the hoosegow. He counts that arrest as his "first bad review" — but at least it got him the attention that was denied him at home by his disappointed, disapproving Colombian father and his carping, theatrical Puerto Rican mother. Fortunately, mentors at school steered him into a constructive outlet for his anger and energy — acting. He acquired an ancient acting coach and an equally ancient (plus stammering) agent, and it was the actor's life for him. He debuted on "Miami Vice," of course — as a drug lord, also of course — and, right from Take One, he was pitching curves, making waves, creating his own dialogue to make the scene "real" (while unnerving his scene partners and Herr Director). This became a kind of leitmotif to live by and work by, but it made him a solid actor.
Once he brought his autobiography up to date, right up to the curtain of the evening's performance — rattling every last character out of his menagerie, spinning on a dime from one to another — Leguizamo declared the session over, and first-nighters adjourned to the Top of the Standard Hotel on West 13th Street.
The view of Manhattan in full nocturnal twinkle 'n' shine from the 18th floor is awesome in the most literal sense of that overworked word. Even bathrooms, done in floor-to-ceiling glass, give a stunning look, which presumably doesn't look back.
White leather sofas and alcoves line the main area overlooking the Hudson River. The paths to the centerpiece bar was constantly clogged with first-nighters, but an armada of waiters and waitresses dispensed hors d'oeuvres and bubbly to guests.
The paparazzi assembled at the opposite end of the floor and waited with professional patience for the cast of one to show (for a while, as it turned out). But when he arrived, his fireball energy was intact — just reconstituted for one-on-ones.
One of the surprising now-it-can-be-tolds of the evening was that his immediate family took genuine offense at his truth-telling on stage — his father even threatened to sue over one show — so the mind boggles at what some of his name-brand acting peers will make of his prickly impersonations. So far, none have seen the show.
"The only ones I play in the show who've seen it are my wife and my mother," he relayed. "My mother had a few notes for me, but my wife really loved it."
In for a particularly wicked (and, thus, riotous) ribbing are his directors, Baz Luhrmann (very ironic, angular and Aussie) and Brian De Palma (bouncing gracefully about the stage like a basketball player dribbling). "I had great experiences with both of them — I did two movies with each — 'Moulin Rouge!' and 'Romeo + Juliet' with Baz, 'Casualties of War' and 'Carlito's Way' with Brian. We had a lot of chemistry together. They both let me do my thing and really encouraged me."
Sean Penn, who starred in the two De Palmas, comes in for some kidding as well, primarily for "Casualties of War," in which a movie-debuting Leguizamo must man up to repeated slappings from Penn in repeated retakes ordered by De Palma.
The two actors somehow stayed great friends. "We're still really cool," Leguizamo insisted. "Every time I see him, there's still a lot of love between the two of us."
Despite the trouble on the set his ad-libs have caused, Leguizamo remains blissfully unrepentant: "Most of my ad-libs stayed in 'Executive Decision,'" he pointed out (and, during the course of his show, he unreels an Exhibit A case-in-point). "In 'Wong Foo,' the script was great, but I added a lot of my own flavoring. In 'Carlito's Way' I added a lot. I always have. In 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' I made up lots of dialogue again."
Of the drag queens going West in "Wong Foo," Leguizamo is virtually the last man standing. Swayze has passed, and Wesley Snipes is in prison for tax evasion — so Leguizamo goes easy on them, focusing more on his own dysfunction. Stumbling around tentatively in high heels was nothing compared to the prepping to remove every hair on his body. As if waxing weren't excruciating enough, "they had to shave my ass. It was the most embarrassing thing that has ever been done to me."
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Almost 30 years ago, Fisher Stevens made his Broadway debut as an actor a block away at the then-Little Theatre (now the Helen Hayes), replacing Matthew Broderick in Torch Song Triliogy, and now he's making his directorial bow with Leguizamo. "I help keep him honest in traveling the ups and downs of his life," he offered. "I've been working with John a year and a half on the show. We've pulled it into a full play — y'know, like with a beginning, middle and end. It's been an incredible journey. I met him in 1988 at The Public Theatre, doing A Midsummer Night's Dream. He was Puck, I was Demetrius. We've been friends ever since."
Stevens' career has not gone in a straight line, although he is an expert character comedian and a lively second-banana in anybody's book — but he avails himself of different theatrical functions when they materialize. "I've directed little things — not much — at my theatre company, Naked Angels. That's about it." He has also produced documentaries and features for Greenestreet Films. Plus, he still tries to keep his acting hand in: "I've been doing a little role with Glenn Close on 'Damages.'"
This is the second Leguizamo show in a row to be produced by Nelle Nugent. Their American Buffalo shuffled across the boards here in eight performances flat with two Broadway debutantes on board: Haley Joel Osment and Cedric the Entertainer. The latter led the Ghetto Klown welcoming committee. "I do want to come back to Broadway," admitted Cedric. "I won't let that short run deter me. It was really a lot of work, and there were places where I felt I really grew as an actor by having the opportunity to do it."
Also present and proudly accounted for were Leguizamo's three-time co-star ( Rosie Perez, recovering from surgery and looking great) and one of his two-time directors ( Brad Furman). "Hopefully," said Furman, "I'll make the rest of my movies with Leguizamo. He's the greatest. That's why I'm here tonight. He inspired me to do great work in my first film and in my second. He did 'The Take,' and then we did 'The Lincoln Lawyer,' so I hope to build a future with him."
Ghetto Klown being an acting feast, actors turned out in droves to be the first served — and not a few of them were pursing other goals as well. For instance, Jon Robin Baitz, who wrote arguably the best play of this season ( Other Desert Cities), and Geoffrey Nauffs, who wrote a Tony-nominated Best Play of last season ( Next Fall), are variously involved in TV's "Brothers and Sisters" series, waiting to find out in May whether it will go for Season Six. Eric Bogosian, himself a multi-character monologist who has made many of the same career stops as Leguizamo (American Place, "Miami Vice"), just finished a Broadway run in Time Stands Still and is now deep into novel-writing: "I'm working on a book about an assassination of a Turkish leader by an Armenian in 1921. It's called 'The Killing of Talat Pasha.' He was the leader of the Turks in 1915."
Stephen Lang vowed that he gave Leguizamo no pointers on how to impersonate Lee Strasberg, and he could have: Lang did an outrageously funny send-up of the Actors' Studio guru in Arthur Miller's last play, Finishing the Picture (the picture being "The Misfits," Marilyn Monroe's last), when it bowed at Chicago's Goodman. "It was a great play, and it'll never be done again," he said.
Of late, Lang has turned to television: "I'm doing 'Terra Nova' for Spielberg. It's a new science-fiction series, an original time-travel show at Fox. I haven't done a play for about three years. My last play was my one-man show, Beyond Glory."
"SNL" star Rachel Dratch, fresh from a "30 Rock," said she just got a call for a new Minsky's reading this month. "They're re-tooling it again," she said.
Others in attendance: Ben Stiller, Broadway bound in The House of Blue Leaves; Ally Sheedy; actor-turning-producer (of this) Joseph Sirola; Willie Garson of "Sex and the City"; Colin Quinn; Scottsboro Boy Colman Domingo; ABC-TV's John Quinones and WNBC-TV's David Ushery; In the Heights Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda; designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo; Callie Thorne from TV's "Rescue Me"; film director Doug Liman; Cuban singer Jorge Moreno and Ian Drew. The Post's Cindi Adams, who didn't make it to the party (or to the second act), clucked contentedly over reaction to her Priscilla Queen of the Desert rave: "I got flowers from the Nederlanders. I said, 'What happened to Tiffany's?'"
View highlights from the show: