John Leguizamo bares his soul once more in "Ghetto Klown"

A pillar of the solo genre in the '90s, the actor/comedian/writer is renowned for his scathingly funny brand of self-laceration. Part stand-up routine, part therapy session, "Ghetto Klown" stands in the badass tradition of "Mambo Mouth," "Spic-O-Rama" and "Freak." If "Ghetto Klown" wastes way too much time on Hollywood backbiting, there's no denying that Leguizamo is a live-wire performer whose nerve matches his wit.

An Emmy winner and Tony nominee best known for his film and TV work, such as the "Ice Age" movies and "ER," Leguizamo never phones it in onstage. He brings it every minute in this wild and woolly solo riff and more than lives up to his reputation for combustible stage presence. When it comes to gleefully raunchy personal expose, Leguizamo is the gold standard. If you are in the mood for uncensored autobiography that hops from gyration to subtext, "Ghetto Klown" will have you howling.

Some of the Tinseltown material is giggle-worthy. Steven Seagal, who comes off as thug, apparently threatened to punch Leguizamo out over the show. Patrick Swayze is an ego-monster, Al Pacino a blowhard. Of Pacino's performance in "Carlito's Way," he has this to say: "He sounded more like Foghorn Leghorn than Puerto Rican to me, I'm just sayin."

Ouch!

Leguizamo is a master impersonator who nails the stars he rails against but the backlot infighting, coke-sniffing agents and macho one-upmanship with his BFF Ray Ray soon grows old hat. Far more interesting are the stories about growing up poor in Queens. Clad in a backwards baseball cap and baggy sweatpants, Leguizamo ricochets across the stage to capture the pulse of the inner city.

His capacity for self-destructive behavior he learned from his parents and their "Ultimate Fighting" style marriage, which he immortalized in "Spic-O-Rama." The only way to escape the chaos at home was to take to the streets.

Only when he discovered he could channel his pain into art, did he find his salvation and he soon became obsessed with breaking into a business that still often relegates Latinos to the sidelines.

This early part of his rags to riches story remains gripping. Take for instance the memory of his very first TV gig as a suitably stereotypical Colombian drug lord on "Miami Vice." If he looks pallid in the clip, it's not really his fault. His devoted grandfather had advised him to look as fair-skinned as possible if he wanted a shot at fame. As gramps put it, "Only white Latinos make it to Telemundo. ... Stay out of the sun. Walk on the shaded side of the street. Don't even eat dark food." He ended up looking like a "Latino vampire."

No sooner did he arrive in the limelight, making a splash in movies like "To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," "Romeo + Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge" than he found a new way to sabotage himself. He goaded stars, ad-libbed lines and wouldn't let anyone mess with that chip on his shoulder. Least of all his loved ones. His first wife divorces him, his BFF sucker punches him and both of his parents try to sue him.

When something got him down (remember "House of Buggin'?"), he spiraled into deep pit of depression. Leguizamo's video montage of his depressive bouts is nothing less than hysterically funny, which gives you a sense of how charismatic he is as a performer. At Friday night's show, he also improvised his way through various and sundry technical glitches.

Director Fisher Stevens ought to edit the piece (it's 20 minutes too long at least) and Leguizamo shouldn't bury his political points so deeply but "Ghetto Klown" is still a blast.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/KarenDSouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/Dsouzatheaterpage

'GHETTO KLOWN'
Written by and starring John Leguizamo
Through: April 27
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market, San Francisco
Running time: two hours 30 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $40-$95 (subject to change), 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com