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John Leguizamo is one of the most prodigiously talented and, I would argue, most important, performers in the United States. And that stature derives as much from his unique position as a Latino-American show-business pioneer as it issues from the mad inspiration of his feverishly nimble brain.
In a mere few years, Leguizamo (pronounced "le-gwee-sa-mo") has ascended from bit player (whose work was cut, likely as not, from the completed film) through embodying stereotyped Latin hoods, to the ranks of this country's premier performance artists. He can create characters from whole cloth, and from the observation of his own inner-city culture, in the manner of Lily Tomlin. And while he does not tell jokes, he can nail a zinger with the panache of a master. (I treasure his succinct recollection, in Freak, of discovering adolescent masturbation: "I was cleaning it and it went off.") But Leguizamo is at his most febrile when weaving his solo shows from the stuff of autobiography.
Which is precisely what Leguizamo was doing in Page Auditorium on Duke University's West Campus on March 2 of this year in a performance co-produced by Broadway at Duke and OnStage, in association with Mi Gente. It was not, like the actor-writer's previous work (Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, and the peerless Freak), a fully articulated piece but a kind of rehearsal. As with the (late?) monologist Spaulding Gray, whom Leguizamo invoked at the beginning of his solo, the actor took his material from notes.
Leguizamo performed largely behind a rostrum, but occasionally, when he was more certain of the physical approach the piece demanded, emerged to enact one of his characteristically energetic pieces of business. These all-too-brief exhibitions merely served to point up the essential disappointment of the evening, for all the acumen and often achingly funny material it contained. As with Robin Williams and Richard Pryor, this actor requires complete freedom of movement to convey his genius in all its peripatetic glory. Leguizamo bound is not Leguizamo whole and entire.
Despite that podium, however, Leguizamo was anything but academic. "I don't want to be an example," he told an audience comprised largely of Duke students, "I just want to be a horrible warning." Yet his subsequent tour through his own show-biz history did have something like a philosophical theme, based on that old debbil, the untutorable ability to sense the right choice at the right moment. Timing is everything, and not simply in what vaudevillians used to call the show business.
Since Leguizamo is nearly my exact contemporary, I share with him a certain theatrical experience, or at least an awareness of the 1970s-1980s cultural zeitgeist (he on the inside and me, I hasten to add, on the out) from which he sprang. And this new piece conjures the spirit, excitement, and excesses of the time — the lure of (and disappointment with) acting classes, improvisational troupes, performance art, Shakespeare at the Public Theatre — as well as the crushing means by which show biz deals with what it perceives as its outsiders (at least until they become "hot," as Latinos and gay men seem, for the ephemeral moment, to be).
In what must be sweet vengeance, Leguizamo, who never tried to tamp down his ethnicity for a fast reward, has become successful precisely because of it. His rough-hewn drag queen wannabe Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995) is a classic performance, far edgier than the movie that (barely) contains it. ("I was scarily hot in that flick," Leguizamo notes with a certain awe. And he was.) It's the kind of thing that could only have come from a performer in tune not only with the character and with his own creative limberness, but with the essential truth of that life, observed from beneath the same glass under which he himself has been studied.
Along the way, Leguizamo offered some deliciously nasty takes on his co-stars (like Patrick Swayze and Kurt Russell, both of whom hated his ad-libs, and that perennial high school amateur Penelope Anne Miller) and detractors (such as Lee Strasberg, who demanded in an improv that the young actor "become the dog," to which Leguizamo adds simply, "So I bit his ass"). In a knowing topical aside concerning his Catholic youth, he said, "I always felt rejected by the Church. Now I know it's because I wasn't cute enough." (He's wrong about that, as Chi-Chi proves.) The structure of the new show is loose enough to allow Leguizamo room to breathe comedically yet remain roughly chronological. At present, it's merely promising. But my hunch is that, by the time it's ready, it will share the brilliant athleticism of its predecessors.
My sole criticism of Leguizamo's comic persona stems from his occasional bouts of semi-hysterical weeping. In these moments he sounds less like himself than like an imitation of the man who was, arguably, the greatest of all modern observational comedians. On the other hand, not everyone can be compared, even negatively, with Richard Pryor. Leguizamo earns the assessment.