By ERIC GRODE
Summer of Sam. The Ice Age films.Super Mario Brothers. For better or for worse, these were all major touchstones in John Leguizamo’s career. Thanks to Fisher Stevens, though, you won’t hear about any of them in Ghetto Klown, Leguizamo’s fifth one-man show, which opens March 22 at the Lyceum Theatre under Stevens’ direction.
It’s not that Leguizamo’s film career isn’t relevant. Ghetto Klown’s website plays up ‘’his roles opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest stars,’’ and the piece itself contains plenty of stories about Carlito’s Way, Romeo + Juliet and other major titles. And Stevens is certainly aware of the movies that didn’t make the cut. After all, he was in Super Mario Brothers, too.
Rather, he saw a workshop of Ghetto Klown about two years ago and has since steered it through more than a dozen iterations across North America. In the process, he took what he described as ‘’sort of a ‘Greatest Hits of My Career’’’ and whittled it down to something with fewer boldface names but more bold glimpses into Leguizamo’s inventive, conflicted, occasionally self-sabotaging career.
‘’The show biz stuff doesn’t really interest me,’’ Stevens says. ‘’But I thought that if we could get to the core of it, that would be something worth seeing. Why did he behave that way? What drove him to that? Why does he write? And so I said to him, ‘If you’re willing to go there, I’m willing to do it.’’’
As much as Stevens has enjoyed the two years that have brought Ghetto Klown to Toronto, Santa Fe, Chicago and now Broadway, he looks forward to seeing the text become finalized---or as close to finalized as anything can be in Leguizamo’s hands. ‘’It’s a joy to work with John,” he says, ‘’but it’s endless. You’re never done.’’
Stevens approaches this material as someone who has enjoyed a similarly versatile career. After he and his mother moved to New York from Chicago when he was 13, they rented out their apartment to a group called the Actors Institute, which paid half the rent.’’There was literally a stage in my living room,’’ he says.
Thus began a showbiz journey that included time as a teenage stage actor (Torch Song Trilogy and Brighton Beach Memoirs), an artistic director (he co-founded Naked Angels, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary), tabloid fodder (he was coupled with Michelle Pfeiffer at the height of her fame) and a film producer (with titles that include In the Bedroom, A Prairie Home Companion, and what he refers to as ‘’a lot of things that sucked’’).
His most recent career is in the world of documentaries: He won an Oscar last year for producing The Cove and is currently juggling Ghetto Klown with a film he’s directing about people in the process of making huge decisions. Long before that, though, he was a guy in his early 20s appearing in a Public Theater production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream alongside a young, Colombian-Puerto Rican actor with a mischievous streak.
‘’That’s where I met John,’’ Stevens recalls. ‘He was a real prankster---he thought he was Puck. He put itching powder in my jock, and so I shaving-creamed his backpack and costume. And we got to be friends.’’
At the time, Leguizamo was writing the monologues that would become Mambo Mouth, and a few years later, he was filming Super Mario Brothers as he wrote Spic-O-Rama. The success of those one-man shows brought Leguizamo a legitimacy that he had struggled to attain as a Latino auditioning to play drug dealers and doormen. Ghetto Klown---which stems from his 2006 memoir Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends---juggles these professional ups and downs alongside the personal travails that theatregoers will recognize from his later solo shows Freak and Sexaholix … A Love Story, both of which came to Broadway and were filmed for HBO.
As he finds the right balance between work and life, comedy and pathos, bravado and self-deprecation, Leguizamo has constantly reshuffled the new show. (When I mentioned the shout-out that he had given to fellow monologists Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray the night before, Stevens said, “He put that back in?”) But at least at first, the focus is clearly on laughs. “A half hour into the first act, the audience is actually sore from laughing,” Stevens says.
The two have come close to collaborating on other projects over the years: Stevens took part in a workshop of material that would ultimately be part of Leguizamo’s sketch-comedy TV show, House of Buggin’, and Leguizamo enlisted Stevens in producing a biopic of the influential Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Piñero. (Leguizamo intended to play Piñero himself, but he ultimately ceded the role to Bejamin Bratt.)
Fisher diplomatically suggests that these delays were for the best. “I think it’s the perfect timing for us to work together,” he says, and Ghetto Klown features numerous anecdotes or professional collaborations that ran aground. Over the course of the play, Leguizamo shoves, slaps, is shoved by, or is slapped by Kurt Russell, Sean Penn, Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal. He also gets under Al Pacino’s skin on the set of Carlito’s Way, leading to an outburst that gives the play its title.
“We may not always agree,” Stevens says of the Ghetto Klown process, “but at the end of the day, the audience will decide who’s right. And we’re both OK with that.”
Eric Grode, the author of the recently released “Hair: The Story of the Show That Defined a Generation” (Running Press), was theatre critic at the New York Sun from 2005 to 2008.