The 46-year-old comedian is pacing the stage of the Lyceum Theatre, massaging the final touches on his new one-man show, “Ghetto Klown,” as the creative team watches from the audience, trying to keep up with his mile-a-minute thoughts.
“Let’s take it from the slide in the sand,” he tells them.
A photo then flashes on a huge projection screen behind the comedian. It’s a picture of Leguizamo’s two kids smiling broadly, their faces the only thing visible from beneath a mound of playground sand.
“I had to bury them because they’re hyper like me and otherwise I wouldn’t get anything done,” Leguizamo jokes.
Then he falters. “Line!” he calls out.
From the audience comes the next bit of dialogue: “My son …”
“My son was watching ‘Ace Ventura’ one night,” Leguizamo continues.
And he’s off and running again.
This is Leguizamo’s fifth one-man show and it explores his career — his acting choices, his professional frustrations and his work alongside Hollywood stars. He jokes that it is “A Portrait of a Middle-Aged Man as an Artist.”
“It’s almost like a novel what you can do in a one-man show. It’s heightened reality. It’s haiku, in a way,” he says, relaxing after rehearsals with a glass of white wine. “I have to say a lot more in less time and in less ways because you can’t really talk the regular way you talk. It just doesn’t play.”
The new show follows Leguizamo’s confessional, expletive-laden and almost painfully honest previous work — 1991’s “Mambo Mouth,” 1993’s “Spic-O-Rama,” 1998’s “Freak,” and 2001’s “Sexaholix … a Love Story.” The first won an Obie Award, the second a Drama Desk Award and the latter two were on Broadway. “Freak” earned Tony Award nominations for best actor and best play, and “Sexaholix” a Tony nomination as a special theatrical event. All four shows were shown on cable TV and “Spic-O-Rama” won four cable ACE awards.
“The writing is never easy,” he says. “I understand structure better than I did when I was 26, when I first did my show. I understand themes and premise and all that stuff. I understand the mechanics so much better than I ever have. But it doesn’t make it easier. None of that helps. You have to toil like a Chilean miner.”
After having already dealt with his childhood, his family and his sex life, Leguizamo decided the new show should deal with his professional ups and downs, which have included highlights such as his TV show “House of Buggin'” to such movies as “Carlito’s Way,” “Casualties of War” and “Moulin Rouge.” There have also been dry spells and some flops, including the movies “Spawn” and “Righteous Kill.”
He has been aided this time by director Fisher Stevens, the one-time star of “Short Circuit” who has been friends with Leguizamo since 1987 when both were appearing in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in New York.
Leguizamo, always a prankster, thought it would be hilarious to put itching powder in Stevens’ underwear before they hit the stage. The joke backfired when Stevens was left screaming in agony — the itching powder turned out to be more like fiberglass. Stevens retaliated by smearing shaving cream all over Leguizamo’s clothes.
“We became fast friends after that. We got reported to Equity and fined,” Leguizamo says. “But I knew he always had a great sense of humor. And I needed someone with a great sense of humor, sharp about life, who could direct and be brutally honest. I don’t want to play games on stage.”
Stevens, who calls Leguizamo one of the most talented people he’s ever seen, says he’s been trying to contain the comedian’s boundless skills at improvisation. Leguizamo will try new things all the time on stage — and not warn anyone before.
“He constantly surprises and is amazing,” the director says. “But at the same time, it’s frustrating, because we’ll lock something in and then he’ll want to try something else. Ultimately, it’s about us trusting each other.”
Earlier incarnations of “Ghetto Klown” were shown in Philadelphia, New Haven, Conn; Santa Fe, N.M; Louisville, Ky.; Berkeley, Calif; Toronto and at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival, and elsewhere. Leguizamo, who put the show on index cards and used a laptop for projections, sharpened it up most recently in Chicago.
For the trip East, he has cut some passages that dealt with such stars such as Harrison Ford, Mike Nichols, Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper and Robert De Niro. Still in the show are sometimes unflattering references to Al Pacino, Sean Penn, Brian De Palma, Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal — and he’s not worried about the consequences.
“When you’re being honest, you’re going to risk. I mean, you can’t be honest and not expect somebody to want to knock you out,” he says. “To me, comedy in America is so light and trivial for some reason. It just never has the weight that comedy actually should have.”
Leguizamo removed parts of what he personally considered the show’s funniest moments — like getting high with Ford on a film set — after listening to critics and the audience in Chicago. They wanted more personal stuff, and the comedian obliged.
“You have to be objective,” he says with a shrug.
Leguizamo thinks “Ghetto Klown” will be his last one-man show derived from his personal life. They’ve taken their toll: He says they’ve been just too wrenching to his family and too raw for his emotions.
“I am thinking about another. But not personal. I don’t want to do personal anymore,” he says. “This is my last linear, personal show. I want to do far-fetched. I want to do avant-garde. I want to do stream of consciousness. I want to do just historic. Anything but personal.”