Near the end of this wild, spectacular safari through his early life, John Leguizamo receives a kind of blessing. As a down-at-heel young actor, he meets his errant, brutal father. The old man has always dismissed his son. Now, having seen him perform, he grudgingly acknowledges that he has, after all, a talent for "turning nothing into something."
It is a moving moment, largely because we have watched Leguizamo turning nothing into something for the previous two hours. The show is one man, a mostly empty stage decorated from time to time with projections on a large screen, and a small, rather ordinary story of growing up in New York. This is not quite nothing but it is, for a Broadway show, not a lot. In Leguizamo's hands, it is enough.
Any one-actor show has to overcome two basic problems. The obvious one is that of holding the stage, and when the stage is a big one like the Cort, it's a formidable challenge.
Leguizamo's perpetual motion, though, generates enough energy to fill Shea Stadium, nevermind the Cort. He is the Mick Jagger of the theater, squirming, sliding, spinning, making the whole joint rock to his rhythms.
Not only does he storm the stage, conquering its empty space with the sheer power of his presence, but he also extends his domain beyond the footlights. He invades one of the boxes. He tumbles into the auditorium.
The other difficulty of the one-man form is creating dramatic conflict. Leguizamo tackles it at what must be some personal cost. The conflict he creates is that between the powerful, commanding figure he cuts on stage, and the weak, vulnerable, rather lost kid he used to be. There is a constant tension between the smart, cynical comic persona of Leguizamo now and the pain, loneliness and humiliation of the childhood he revisits.
The comedy is most compelling when the story is at its most painful. But when Leguizamo's attention is directed outside himself and his family, it wanders into funny but familiar stereotypes.
There are macho Latinos, curry-selling Indians, fearsome blacks, a domineering and sexually voracious German, Italian Guidos, beer-swilling, Riverdancing Irish, spaced-out Californians. He creates them with extraordinary dexterity and there is, at least, an equality of abuse. But they limit the ability of the show to become what it might have been a journey through the city.
When he turns inward and journeys through his own unhappiness, the laughter is deeper, sadder and more human. Leguizamo's two great creations are his own father and a gay, deaf uncle who was a kind of surrogate father and mother.
The dialogues with his father are eerily, achingly funny. In portraying this ignorant man, he is often merciless. But he also holds the immigrants' American dream up to the light, exposing the gap between his Pop's fantasy of becoming "the king of tenements" and the reality of poverty.
Set against this brave, tough exploration, there is the wondrous, fairy godfather uncle. Leguizamo's performance of his uncle's "Spanglish" sign-language is at once hysterically funny and tenderly affectionate. Watching it, you realize that the manic exuberance of the performance is rooted in a strange kind of love. Making moments like that from the bare essentials of theater really is something.
The thing about John Leguizamo is that he does not appear on stage - he explodes. Opening last night at the Cort Theater in "Freak," called a "demi-semi-quasi-pseudo-autobiographical" comedy, he starts by bursting through a paper poster of himself and is still bursting some two hours later.
He says he is going to give us "a piece of his soul." Not quite. Or, at least, not yet.
There is a danger and excitement to Leguizamo's stage presence, a volatile cocktail mix of disdain, hubris and despair cheekily shaken with a determination to be liked and a need to be noticed. He puts himself on the line, then strings the line across the Grand Canyon without a net.
In his previous off-Broadway one-man shows, "Mambo Mouth" and "Spic-O-Rama," Leguizamo has - to put a serious twist on a comic insight - explored both the Latino consciousness and the Latino New York experience in a vignette series of vivid but riotously funny stage caricatures.
Like all the best comedy, it had its undertow of tragedy (sometimes the only difference between the two is whether a verb is transitive or intransitive, whether it's happening to you or to someone else!), but these sketches were basically a mocking tourist guide to Leguizamo's ethnic neighborhood.
In "Freak," which has been directed and developed (whatever that means) by David Bar Katz, Leguizamo has turned the spotlight and searchlight on himself. It almost seems part of what psychiatrists used to call an "abreaction": acting out a painful past for present therapy.
Mind you, this is some couch Leguizamo has to lie upon. He hardly lies back and tells all. The man jitters with movement - a dancing fool, who at times looks as if, with a bit of training, he could give the likes of Savion Glover a dance for his money.
And while he has a tough, hard-knocks story to relate, even his saddest moments of quiet horror are dispatched with a scathing hilarity pitched somewhere between frenzy and hysteria.
He is a performer who never whispers when he can shout, walks when he can run, perspires when he can sweat. In this "autobiographical" show, taking him from an abused childhood to the first uneasily greasy steps on a showbiz ladder, Leguizamo flagellates family, friends and self like an equal-opportunity dominatrix.
All his stories have both an undercurrent of pain, comically deflected with a clown's ruefully apologetic attitude, made all the more poignant here by Leguizamo's nervily tough-boy stance and willingness to bare all - even to the point of knowingly suggesting that he is baring more than he realizes he is baring.
There is psychological smoke and mirrors here, giving the hidden fires a reflective fascination.
On one level, this is an extraordinarily funny, vital show, full of sound, fury and self-observation. On a deeper level, it is a guy who believes he is doing precisely what Shakespeare's Coriolanus refused to do: display his private wounds to a gaping public.
And among those wounds is the indication of quite a lot of unfinished business: of forgivenesses not quite forgiven, of wounds not quite healed - sometimes, perhaps, not even acknowledged - all in a context of memories never to be forgotten.
Sounds heavy? It's not. It's heavy for Leguizamo, not for the audience. It's all that lovely difference of being objectively subject to either a transitive or intransitive verb.
Don't worry, you'll love it. Only Leguizamo has to handle the pain - and he's paid for it. In every way.
The evidence is in, and the news is good. Though there have been no recorded confirmations from priests, parapsychologists or William Peter Blatty, the exorcism of John Leguizamo was obviously a failure.
Any doubts on the matter have been dispelled by Mr. Leguizamo's new show, ''Freak,'' which opened last night at the Cort Theater and which, although a one-man performance, is more crowded with characters than any other production on Broadway, including ''Ragtime.''
Among the vivid souls embodied in this autobiographical swim through New York's melting pot is Mr. Leguizamo's alcoholic grandmother, who decided some years ago that her grandson had Satan inside him and tried to purge little John by sprinkling him with Jack Daniel's, a convenient substitute for holy water.
It's easy to see where the old lady was coming from. When Mr. Leguizamo turns into his grandmother or his younger self imitating the Devil or the strapping Irish rowdy who beat him up as a teen-ager, it seems less an act of impersonation than an instance of possession. There's a whole city of people inside this young man's slender frame. And there is indeed something supernatural -- or freakish, to use Mr. Leguizamo's own term -- about the intensity of focus and energy with which each takes the stage.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Mr. Leguizamo's previous performance pieces, ''Mambo Mouth'' and ''Spic-o-Rama.'' But those galleries of Hispanic-American portraits, much less his appearances in movies like ''To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,'' didn't show the astonishing scope and fluidity offered here. In ''Freak,'' Mr. Leguizamo carries on four- and five-person dialogues without any noticeable clicks of transition. One moment he is clearly and unconditionally one person; one moment he's another. It's as simple and unfathomable as that.
How does this happen? Where does it come from? Theatergoers looking for literal psychological answers to these questions may leave ''Freak'' feeling frustrated. It is as a self-portrait that this show, written by Mr. Leguizamo and directed and developed by David Bar Katz, falls short. Described by its author as a ''semi-demi-quasi-pseudo autobiography,'' the production warrants every one of those qualifying prefixes. Early in the show, Mr. Leguizamo promises to ''give you a piece of my soul before the night is through.''
But as the narrator of the story of his own life, which takes him from sperm cell (represented by a giant biological projection by Wendall K. Harrington) to the beginning of his acting career, Mr. Leguizamo remains an oddly nondescript presence, like a generic M.C. at a roast.
He brings to mind the amorphous actor in the Kurt Vonnegut story ''Who Am I This Time?'' waiting for a role to allow him to assume a fully defined life. You understand what his father meant when he said: ''Why are you always trying to be like other people? You're not even good at being yourself.'' And while ''Freak'' is ostensibly about Mr. Leguizamo's finding himself, and specifically about his coming to terms with his Hispanic identity, there's something prefabricated about the show's sentimental structure and especially about his finding closure (that dreaded word) with the angry father whose approval he always sought.
A segment in which Mr. Leguizamo and his younger brother discover their father working as a dishwasher in a restaurant where they had been told he was the headwaiter may indeed be true. But it is also a plot so familiar from soapy movies and sitcoms that it has been parodied on ''The Simpsons'' (in the episode where Marge remembers finding out her dad was a ''stewardess'' instead of an airline pilot).
There is also no escaping the fact that many of the show's anecdotes are built on nightclub-variety punch lines, the sort that begin with lines like ''our apartment was so small that . . .'' It is, in other words, the stuff of stand-up routines.
That the evening remains so compellingly watchable is partly because Mr. Leguizamo is not so much a stand-up comic as a jump-up, lie-down, throw-yourself-against-the-wall comic. The electric energy and physical precision with which he invests every movement takes the performance into realms the script doesn't go. So in fact you do learn a lot about Mr. Leguizamo's disappointed, violence-prone father, not so much from what he has the character say, as from the set of his shoulders, the swaggering slur in his speech.
Moreover, Mr. Leguizamo, who grew up in neighborhoods he describes as infused with all ''the colors of Benetton,'' can instantly summon a spectrum of ethnic identities. Like the great Richard Pryor, he understands that race is less a matter of skin color than a way of talking, walking, dancing and just standing. Recalling his family's arrival in Jackson Heights, Queens, he becomes an entire neighborhood within 90 seconds: an Indian candy salesman, a Puerto Rican-razzing Jamaican and a forbidding Korean newsstand owner.
These aren't so much variations on stereotypes as bone-deep appreciations of styles that are full defense systems. Watch how Mr. Leguizamo turns into a Black Muslim you definitely don't want to cross just by crouching a bit and picking his teeth with a fingernail. Or a pugilistic Irish lad through the inward folding of the upper lip.
You can also see Mr. Leguizamo as Mr. Leguizamo trying to pass himself off as both Irish (black Irish) and later Italian. Hitting on a drunken colleen, the actor's teen-age self decides ''to Riverdance'' his way up to her.
Silly? You bet, but also scathingly funny.
This kind of comic exaggeration can also assume blissfully surreal dimensions. Nearly every male comedian has a routine about discovering sex. But few can match the Rabelaisian vigor and wit that Mr. Leguizamo brings to his.
His riff on the early wonders of masturbation is priceless, as he tries out everything from sandwiches to neckties as potential pleasure toys. And the tale of his losing his virginity, to an obese German woman in the kitchen of a Kentucky Fried Chicken store, transforms the basic facts of reproductive biology into a fantasy out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
The show definitely needs editing. Some vignettes, like one in which Mr. Leguizamo's mother declares her independence to the disco song ''I Will Survive,'' wear thin. And the evening's inspirational conclusion, an hommage to Hispanic-American performers of the past, feels canned in its piety.
But any theatergoer with a heart will have trouble resisting another sentimental scene, in which the actor recalls going to see ''A Chorus Line.'' Mr. Leguizamo (be warned) leaps into a box seat in the audience to convey the effect of seeing a character named Morales singing about her life in a Broadway musical. She was, he realized, Puerto Rican and, even more remarkable, she didn't have a gun or a hypodermic needle in her hand.
Mr. Leguizamo turns his spotlighted face from the stage back to us and says, with a grin that seems to stretch into eternity, ''And everybody was watching her.'' Pause. ''The way you all are looking at me.''
That moment sums up what Mr. Leguizamo is really all about. It's a quality that's not quantifiable in sociological or psychological terms. But when it shows up on a stage, there's no way you're not going to pay attention.
Hollywood has yet to figure how to harness the talents of John Leguizamo, but the Broadway stage has no such trouble. The comic performer's latest solo show, the semi-autobiographical "Freak," is another tour-de-force from a man who can conjure entire families -- entire boroughs, even -- with a face as mutable as putty and a voice teeming with more accents than a New York subway car.
Written by Leguizamo and developed with director David Bar Katz, "Freak" recounts, in ways both comic and harsh, the performer's upbringing in various New York City neighborhoods, focusing mostly on the performer's rocky relationship with a verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive father. Leguizamo is his own Latino family reunion as he mimics his mean, drunken "Pops," his flirtatious, Latina-spitfire mother (the show's best character), and his fat, timid younger brother, as well as numerous other friends, relatives and not-always-friendly neighbors in the ethnic urban battlezones of his youth.
"My parents left their homeland during the great Plantain famine," Leguizamo quips. "Their accents were so thick they couldn't understand each other." Perhaps no comic since Richard Pryor has been better at wringing laughs from horrific childhoods: After young John breaks the antenna of his father's beloved television, his terrified mother (in the feminine Puerto Rican accent that Leguizamo nails) says, "I'm looking into the face of a dead boy."
The beating that follows is brutal, and Leguizamo spares no details, going so far as to include a very funny near-death experience. Even his own weaknesses aren't unexplored -- regaining consciousness, he immediately blames his innocent little brother for the broken TV.
Dressed in a New York Mets jersey and nylon athletic pants, the always-moving Leguizamo literally bounds about the spare set, backed by some witty screen projections and an effective lighting design. The intimacy of the show's Off Off Broadway workshops survives the transition to Broadway as Leguizamo, well-directed by Katz, breaks into the hip-hop dances that have become a trademark or sits at the stage's edge during a quieter moment. His biographical anecdotes take a familiar course, beginning with his adolescent discovery of masturbation ("I was cleaning it and it went off"), dating, club-hopping and the slow realization of his artistic bent (inspired by, of all things, the Latina character in "A Chorus Line").
But within the commonplace framework is room for some very original flourishes. Among the characters he re-creates are a beloved uncle (a "triple threat" for being Latin, gay and deaf), his first girlfriend and her disapproving Black Muslim father, the middle-aged German prostitute who, at his father's request, initiates the 16-year-old Leguizamo into sex, and in a terrific sequence that showcases the performer's versatility, the Irish and Italian thugs of Brooklyn and Queens who don't exactly put out a welcome mat for Puerto Ricans.
Before he comes to "Freak's" not-altogether-convincing father/son reconciliation scene, Leguizamo tells tales of his college years in Southern California (where he attempts to fit in with his surfer-dude frat brothers), his disastrous audition for acting coach Lee Strasberg and the ethnic typecasting that greeted his entry into the business (he played the lead in an Off Off Broadway production of "Junkie Christ").
Although nearly always funny, some of the anecdotes ring truer than others, and Leguizamo is more poignant in comedy than in straightforward pathos. His account of inadvertently stumbling into Strasberg's acting class, for example, strikes as a bit disingenuous, and, more significantly, the play's final confrontation between father and son ("I knew my father loved me") seems more a concession to dramatic convention than honest character development. Fortunately, Leguizamo never stays in one place too long, and no sooner has he made amends with dad than he's finishing the show with a very moving dedication to the Latino talents that paved his way, from Desi Arnaz to Freddie Prinze. Artistically, if not chronologically, Leguizamo earns his place high atop that list.