In Ghetto Klown, John Leguizamo's fifth solo performance about himself, you have to ask how much an extremely nimble and gifted performer can get away with by both celebrating and carping on his own narcissism in the same breath.
The answer: a lot.
Ghetto Klown is visiting Hollywood (at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre) on the bounce from Broadway, before returning to London later this month.
Leguizamo is now in his mid-40s and, like his peers Anna Deavere Smith and Eric Bogosian, is among the artistic progeny of a genre molded by Spalding Gray, a droll and wry solo performer who usually sat at a desk with a glass of water and talked about the world by talking about himself. Gray's works were ruminative and pointed, subjecting the gallery of characters being described or impersonated to an almost vicious scrutiny. And this gallery included himself, center stage.
Unlike Gray, Leguizamo takes and occupies the stage with a rooster prance, dancing between scenes, under Fisher Stevens' direction. Therein lies much of the show's hyperkinetic, hypnotizing pulse, a visceral frame for a guy doing what so many try and so few accomplish: a discussion of one's family and career that's actually bearable.
In common with Gray is the name-dropping, in the wake of a movie career in which Leguizamo has brushed up against household names: Steven Seagal, Al Pacino, Patrick Swayze. These are not only dropped in but roasted via crackling impersonation. Pacino, with whom Leguizamo appeared in Carlito's Way, survives the rifle scope comparatively unscathed. And that's a rarity in this show.
Seagal comes off looking like a total dick, which is de rigueur for Leguizamo's treatment of the Hollywood crowd.
Mocking Steven Seagal is Leguizamo's undeniably gleeful version of shooting a big fish in a small barrel. One also can infer from a stream of Hollywood references a certain bitterness at having the talent to be a star and yet remaining part of Hollywood's ethnic sideshow (Leguizamo is of Colombian descent).
The satirical rage is so pronounced (it's been his calling card) that Leguizamo's comparatively newfound introspection on failed relationships stemming partly from his own self-absorption feels suspect coming from a guy who's so obviously pleased with himself.
In the orchestra, people are paying $100 a pop for this, and Leguizamo is break-dancing all the way to the ATM.
I'm not convinced that Ghetto Klown is either honest or authentic. I am convinced that Leguizamo is seeking honesty and authenticity, and he remains a magnetic stage presence. He moves like a gazelle and his impersonations of men are distinctive and detailed. For that alone, he deserves the accolades that have been pouring his way. His impersonations of women — ex-wives and his mother — all look strikingly similar, which is itself a kind of revelation.
This is a guy who describes getting cuffed on the subway for doing impersonations, not only gratis but unsolicited. That's not only nuts, it reveals the desperate need for attention that lies in the soul of the show, and the man. But are there artists who don't seek attention?
Yes. Olivier had stage fright, for instance. This doesn't mean he wasn't a ham, but there was a reclusive side to him. Leguizamo is all about show, and showing off. This is where he also parts ways with Spalding Gray, despite the common thread of self-absorption.
The need for attention is a pathology that imposes upon self-scrutiny. The class clown reveals himself to others before understanding himself. Ghetto Klown does much the same.
GHETTO KLOWN | Written and performed by John Leguizamo | Ricardo Montalban Theatre, 1615 Vine St., Hlywd. | Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. | Through Oct. 16 | (323) 463-0089, ricardomontalbantheatre.org