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John Leguizamo's material could yield a powerful show -- if he didn't treat it like stand-up

Wednesday, May 15 2002
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Everybody likes John Leguizamo. I like John Leguizamo. He's an energetic Nuyorican who grew up poor in Queens with his abandoned mom. Now he's a rich, hot, still-youngish superstar of the American stage and screen. In his disappointing new solo show he comes on with the thrilling self-drama of a rock star or a celebrity CEO: Dance music throbs and a curtain of lights flashes upstage. He wears a black leather coat over a navel-baring white tank top and black shoes. "Whassup San Francisco!" he shouts, and the crowd -- brought to a boil by his dancing -- erupts like a geyser.

Solo performance was Leguizamo's first claim to fame 12 years ago, when Mambo Mouth became an off-Broadway hit. Since then he's done two more shows about his Latin childhood and dysfunctional family -- Spic-o-Rama and Freak -- and a bunch of movies, like Moulin Rouge (he played Toulouse-Lautrec), Summer of Sam (Vinny), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (Chi-Chi Rodriguez the drag queen). Those film roles are brilliant: They've brought him a well-deserved name as a Hollywood actor. Sexaholix, though, is just an autobiographical series of jokes about Leguizamo's love life. For a few minutes it deals with a group of his high school friends who called themselves the "Sexaholix," but the friends appear only as nameless presences, giving funny advice. The title is a gimmick. Any marquee with "sex" on it will sell tickets.

Leguizamo starts with 15 minutes of stand-up patter about being Latin. Most of the jokes have nothing to do with the rest of the show, but they warm up the audience and merge seamlessly into anecdotes about his childhood. We meet (again) his temperamental Puerto Rican dad, his long-suffering Colombian mom, and his masturbating little brother. We learn about "Rapunzel Garcia," a neighborhood girl John and his buddies in the Sexaholix try to liberate from a third-floor apartment where her cop father has her imprisoned. We meet a tired, 40-year-old waitress named Penny who teaches Leguizamo how to make love. Then we meet his first wife, a skinny young actress who becomes a plump young Latina matron. "Latin girls, man, they're like blow-up dolls," he says. "Put a ring on that finger and poof, watch those hips blow up."

Leguizamo carries the audience from his early life in Queens through an arc of sex and soured relationships, and finally to his current life as the father of two little "Jewricans." (Their mom is Jewish.) In some ways it's a coming-of-age story, and the material is rich enough to make a powerful, involving show, if only Leguizamo wouldn't treat it like a stand-up routine. He's a self-confessed class clown, which apparently means that he still lacks the confidence -- after three similar shows -- to get through more than half a minute of dialogue without a punch line. The rhythm gets tiresome: Line, line [laughter]. Line, line, line [laughter]. Line [laughter]. The crowd cheers like a giddy studio audience every time he a) dances, b) sings, or c) mentions masturbation. The flashing curtain of lights gets everyone going, too.

Of course he's funny. He's as raw as Eddie Murphy used to be and as thick with attitude as Andrew Dice Clay. His physical acting is sharp, but he uses it to label his characters -- with a bored and sluttish pose for the waitress, say, or a puckered face for his grandfather -- instead of exploring them as people. Leguizamo has toured with these characters before: Last year he delivered most of the same jokes at the Warfield, in a show called John Leguizamo Live! Director Peter Askin helped him shape the script for Broadway, and suddenly Sexaholix is a big hit from New York, making a victory tour of the provinces. (It's also an HBO special.) The show has become a product, a tired old whore, instead of the intimate and charming performance you'd expect from someone with Leguizamo's skill.

He knows people are used to this shtick; Leguizamo swears that Sexaholix will be his last autobiographical show. But the problem has nothing to do with his raw material. A dysfunctional, poor-kid-in-Queens childhood could fuel a dozen good solo performances. The problem is Leguizamo's reluctance to grow, to explore the old stuff in some new and possibly not funny way. He draws energy from his audience -- "Let me feel you!" he shouts when he first comes onstage -- and you sense that his show biz narcissism leaves him unwilling to work without the comfort of a laughing, flattering crowd.

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