The Leguizamo Treatment

On comedy as therapy.

By John Leguizamo
The Cort Theatre, New York City

Reviews of John Leguizamo’s one-man Broadway show Freak have elevated him from the status of respected character actor (To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar; Romeo & Juliet; Spawn) and solo performer (Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama) to that of theatrical phenomenon (“a man who can conjure entire families–entire boroughs, even–with a face as mutable as putty and a voice teeming with more accents than a New York subway car”–Variety). Critics worship his gift for mimicry, and they’re right. In under two hours, Leguizamo plays 37 characters. He calls up a new accent, a new pose, a devastatingly telling gesture every few seconds with the precision of a laser.

Some critics are also anointing him a successor to Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin–but here they’re wrong. Leguizamo is a more daring physical performer, and his comedy is attuned to contemporary concerns in a way that makes Pryor and Tomlin look like ancient masters of a vanishing form. His subjects are of the moment: life in the present-day melting pot, domestic violence, and above all, healing and self-esteem. His is an art for a public that buys memoirs as often as novels, and gossips freely about birthmarks on the president’s genitals. He’s the perfect entertainer for a time in which, as pundits tell us, the distinction between public and private has collapsed.

This is important, because the public-private gap has until recently been a defining element of comedy. With a Pryor or a Tomlin, you sensed that their real-life brains and souls worked and felt quite differently from what you were allowed to see onstage. That fracture was what you watched for: the pregnant pause that let you see how carefully an effect had been calculated, the challenging stare that let you know how much was being held back. A point was being made, and you appreciated the craftsmanship and thought that had gone into it.

With Leguizamo, there’s no inside and outside, no irony–there’s just impulse and imitation. Freak opens with him backstage and out of sight, heaving into a microphone his impression of a man and a woman having raucous sex in Spanish. A quick slide presentation shows a sperm smacking into an egg, followed by giant photographs of Leguizamo as a pudgy, adorable baby. Loud drums warm up the crowd, and the grown man bounds onstage to huge applause. Leguizamo explains that he was born in Colombia, and when he was 6 his parents moved to Queens. He does affectionate–if rather tactless–sendups of the ethnic rainbow he encountered there.

Acting also as narrator, he describes his hideously tacky 1970s apartment, a tapestry of avocado and fecal brown. He portrays himself as a cowering child with a disturbing, squeaky voice and a grotesque, exaggerated grin. His father is a classic loser: a selfish husband, an irresponsible dreamer, and a mean drunk who feeds the boy shots of whiskey and messes up the family’s finances so they constantly have to move. When John accidentally breaks the TV antenna, his father chases him around the living room, then beats his even more helpless younger brother so badly that pulp leaks out of the little boy’s skull.

No single character stands out as particularly compelling here. What amazes is the speed with which Leguizamo changes shape. Robin Williams is just as fast, but less physically invested in his daffy, free-associative creations. Leguizamo’s shift from his sweet, deaf, gay uncle to a barking Indian merchant to his bullying father is so seamless and complete that it seems more influenced by computer/video morphing than by any previous comic. He even does an eerily convincing woman, running her hands over her extended hip in a seductive caress. (After a while, his women do tend to blend together. Black, white, Latin, German–they all speak in honking yet sexual Queens accents, as if they’d studied speech with the Nanny.)

Besides family abuse, the main theme of Freak is the racism Leguizamo faced while growing up–the trouble he has fitting in, the way his Latin looks cause women of various backgrounds to turn him down, men to threaten him, and everyone to expect him to fail. Leguizamo gets a good deal of justified rage off his chest. Admirably, he avoids doing hostile racial schtick or–even more perilous, from the comic’s point of view–sucking up to whites. In fact, the most interesting thing about Freak may be the way he involves the audience. The crowd is younger than usual on Broadway. The majority is white, but there’s a sizable Latino presence and a not insignificant African-American one. Leguizamo appeals to everyone. The crowd adores him, whooping appreciatively in the style of late-night black TV shows. You get the sense that this show has exceptional word-of-mouth, and a good portion of the house is already well-versed in what it’s about to see. The tone for the evening is one of warm mutual support–the opposite of the old dynamic that required a comedian to win the crowd over, to prove his dominance or face down hecklers.

How does Leguizamo pull off this rare and truly moving feat of interracial harmony? His energy helps. But oddly, I think what really does the trick is his writing, which–unlike his mimicry–is dull, shot through with clichés. There’s hardly a moment in Freak that’s original. The set piece about the bad-taste ‘70s apartment might have been fresh in 1990, but arriving as it does after a decade of reminiscence about macramé and bellbottoms, it merely alludes to something we’re almost (but apparently not entirely) tired of remembering. In between scenes, Leguizamo revs up the crowd with sprightly, muscular dances. But again, he picks songs like “I Will Survive,” which seem guaranteed to whip up nostalgia.

Even the tragic element in the show, the painful father-son relationship, feels stale. There’s a big emotional finale to the first act, in which young Leguizamo, desperate to share love with his difficult father, goes to the restaurant where he’s working as captain of the waiters. He’s ashamed to discover that his father has lied: He’s not the captain, just a pathetic dishwasher. What is this but the old job switcheroo–the most ancient and venerable of sitcom episodes? Ben Brantley pointed out in an otherwise glowing review in the New York Times that the plot twist is so basic it was parodied in The Simpsons. (Marge flashed back to her devastation as a child when she found that her father was not the pilot he claimed to be, but a stewardess.)

Leguizamo gets the crowd on his side by making himself a generic emblem of vulnerability. Of blacks and Italians and the Irish, he asks: Will they accept me? Of women: Will they agree to sleep with me? Of casting directors, when he decides to become an actor: Will they hire me? By the end, Freak has become an appeal to the self-pity in all of us. The show does finish on a happy note, but it’s a false one. At this point, Leguizamo is a young man appearing in his first off-Broadway play and beginning to feel confident that he can make it. His father makes a surprise visit to the dressing room and–yet another cliché–begs for his son’s forgiveness. Leguizamo turns him down, but after a second or two he changes his mind. Yes, his father beat him, lied, stepped out on his mother, and told him he was ugly and stupid and worthless. But the man is his father and, after all, he deserves love.

Freak concludes with the same slide that started it off: Leguizamo is once again a sweet toddler perched in his father’s lap. “This is for you, Dad,” the grown-up son announces, with sincere tears in his eyes. The crowd leaps to a standing ovation, moved by the thought that it has just witnessed the hard-fought maturation of a self. But who is this self? What exactly has come of all this therapeutic regurgitation of pain? If you think back to Leguizamo when the show is over–Leguizamo the person, not the shape shifter–you can barely recall a thing about him. In the program notes, he thanks the director, his “partner in crime, David Bar Katz, for giving my inner child an emotional enema.” That’s what you remember: his portrayal of himself as a frightened boy, almost fetal in his weakness. It’s a heartbreaking image, with universal appeal. But it’s got less to do with comedy than with a declaration of need. The old saw about comics was that they were bitter people who went onstage to escape themselves. Leguizamo is a different breed of comic. He peels away layer after layer until he finds his unformed, hurting core, and he invites everyone in for a wallow.