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A CurtainUp Review
Ghetto Klown
Postscript by Elyse Sommer
Doing a live autobiography before one is dead is maybe an act of self-destruction and maybe an act of shedding an old skin. It’s an act of self-hate and self--adulation. It’s many contradictory elements combined to create an illusion of normalcy, which hopefully allows you to come with me on this journey toward a victory over those forces we don’t understand, called life. — John Leguizamo (from the author’s note)

John Leguizamo
John Leguizamo'
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Ghetto Klown may be John Leguizamo’s most deeply felt, personal, revelatory and therapeutic performance piece. It may also be the most entertaining segment in this actor/author/populist raconteur/performer’s growing autobiographical canon that is not only dedicated to his own growth as a performer, but also predicated on the idea that he is, by doing it, becoming a better human being. That is for him to decide. We have only to sit back and marvel at his candor and his cojones (Spanish 101.)

More than a theory there is proof that if you are talented and can’t find enough work to make a living in the profession that you love, then write a show for yourself, sell it and perform in it. That’s simple enough. The multi-talented Leguizamo has taken this concept seriously, also comically, for decades. For the time being anyway, he is not waiting around (or is he fooling us?) to play another monosyllabic, drug-peddling character role in a mediocre film. The highly motivated, incredibly energized and amazingly gifted Leguizamo is, once again, back on a stage doing what he does best: revealing who he is in a lacerating, liberating, laugh-inducing stand-up routine of his own making.

We have previously seen aspects of his life reflected in Mambo Mouth, Spic-O-Rama, Freak and Sexoholic, A Love Story. Ghetto Klown is largely based on his autobiographical 2006 memoir Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and all the Rest of My Hollywood Friends. This dramatic recapitulation of his struggle to reach out for a life beyond the limitations of life in New York’s immigrant ghettos is sure to resonate with many people.

The skewed Mets baseball cap (we love him already,) the tee shirt and the warm up pants settled fashionably below the hip line don’t prevent this Queens, New York native from breaking the ice with a little break-dancing, jumping onto a subway car (projected on a screen) and showing us how in his youth he broke into the conductor’s booth, grabbed the mic and yelled, "Welcome to my show". In real life, he was arrested. "It was like my first bad review," he tells us as he begins his almost breathless, fast-pace narrative journey, under the direction of Fisher Stevens.

Occasionally resorting to motor-mouthed Spanish, (you’ll get the drift) he takes us from his Columbian family’s roots, to his school days, to his problematic acting career. Then he’s on to telling us in sometimes graphic detail his more troubled romantic relationships and finally to his life in Queens with his wife and children. He doesn’t leave out his battle with the Hollywood system or with his serious struggle with depression. How’s that for a two and one half hour session of sharing your feelings?

Leguizamo gives us stringent and visceral impressions of dysfunctional family members, the ups and downs of a friendship/partnership with a long time friend from the old neighborhood, and most poignantly his difficult relationship with his father, a man whose hearing as well as his zest for life was lost fighting in a revolution in Columbia. In rebuking his father’s advice to keep his emotions bottled up, Leguizamo would find that releasing them would significantly mark his life and career.

Selectively and affectionately precise with his impressions, he gives credit to his first acting coach, an elderly woman with a quivering voice who changes his life ("You’re accent is so Spanish. We’re going to have to work on your thuggish sound, ") as she hands him an armful of dramatic literature (projected on a screen) by Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard and Miguel Pinero. Moving on to classes with the legendary Lee Strassberg, he zeros in humorously on that teacher’s famously quirky method.

He includes the time when his father intended to sue him for the things he said about him in the 1998 show Freak. This episode becomes the emotional epicenter of Leguizamo’s need for a healing reconciliation. He struggles mightily to forgive his father, an embittered man who denied his son any support or encouragement. Leguizamo runs the gamut from being both seriously self-serving and comically empowering, especially when it comes to putting down Hollywood’s rich and famous elite. He captures the affected idiosyncrasies and weird behavior of such stars as Miami Vice star Don Johnson, film stars Sean Penn, Kurt Russell and most hilariously Steven Seagal that you would swear they were on stage with him.

Besides set designer Happy Massee’s view of the back alley wall of a Queens New York tenement, there is space on one side of the stage for a desk, chair, phone and a hat rack and on the other side, a large screen and projector. Amusing and evocative slides, film and colorful graphics enhance Lequizamo’s consummately honest and reflective monologue. The question is how much anger and rage can we still see through his otherwise madcap delivery? How therapeutic have all his shows been for him? Who knows? The bottom line is that he is a very funny guy. That’s good enough therapy for me.

Postscript by Elyse Sommer
Full Disclosure: I'm not a fan of the solo genre of theater. But John Leguizamo won me over with this one. Not since Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays have I seen a one-man play that really was as much a "real" play. Leguizamo's memoir is more angry and hyper than Crystal's but for all the "F" bombs and high octane musical interludes, it's just as poignant. Ultimately, even the troubled relationship with his father is flavored with the warmth of a man for whom family, no matter how hurtful, is still family. Leguizamo's high energy, nuanced performance and what is obviously a carefully scripted piece is impressively directed by his friend and long time colleague Fisher Stevens. No bare stage and a chair and a few costume changes, but a definitely Broadway-worthy set by Happy Masee, greatly enhanced by Aaron Gonzalez's projections-- with Leguizamo several times actually getting into that screen. The tall stage gives audiences a good view no matter where they sit — even if in one of the trwo balconies.
Ghetto Klown
By John Leguizamo
Directed by Fisher Stevens

Cast: John Leguizamo
Scenic Design: Happy Massee
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Projection Design: Aaron Gonzalez
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street (212) 239 – 6200
Tickets: $29.50 - $116.50
Performances: Monday, Tuesday and Thursday at 7 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM.
The show was extended before closing and as of the beginning of that extension (5/16) the performances will be Mon & Tue at 7 PM, Wed - Sat at 8 PM From opening 3/22/11; closing 7/10/11
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 03/19/11

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