WHAT “Latin History for Morons”
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $30-$95; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Joyful and tragic history from prime Leguizamo.
John Leguizamo is out to teach us something in “Latin History for Morons,” but don’t run for the door. He’s wearing a professorial tweedy sport jacket and a tie, and is surrounded by books, files and a big two-sided blackboard. But grown-up, thankfully, he is not.
In 95 delightful, subversively serious minutes, he actually does teach centuries of history that never made it to the school books. He also reminds us that learning something — even (or especially) something tragic — can be a joy, and that the theater has missed him a lot.
It has been more than a quarter century since this gifted chameleon burst onto Off-Broadway with “Mambo Mouth,” immediately marking his territory as the first Latin performance artist/stand-up monologuist with crossover star potential. For years, between movies and TV and writing books and getting awards, he used to return to the stage with solos that unofficially added up to a live onstage autobiography.
Now here he is at the Public Theater with his sixth solo, his first New York show since “Ghetto Klown” played Broadway in 2011. He’s 52 and not a kid anymore, though you can’t guess that from the antic, ridiculous, street-wise, supposedly native dance interludes that interrupt the multiethnic commentary. He is a married guy and a dad with an urgent need to help his bullied eighth-grade son write a paper about a hero. Convinced that heroes existed in their history, he takes us on what believably feels like his own intense journey through the Maya and the Inca to the Latino soldiers in American wars.
Leguizamo still has a nonstop mambo mouth, the energy of an eighth-grader and a curiosity that careens around director Tony Taccone’s tight yet friendly production with equal parts irreverence and sweetness. There is a sober dedication in the program: “To all the immigrants who made this country and its original people whose spirit still run our lives unbeknownst to us.” But one doesn’t have to read that to sense the angry incredulity that fuels the humor.
The ending is a little sappy, but no matter. With his face blazing with subtext and his merciless ethnic accents, he does not mince words. He dices them, toys sadistically with them and tosses them into a pile of observations that acknowledge the morons and the humanity in us all.