The major cliché of today’s theater criticism is that even a slightly dystopian play must be reviewed through the discolored prism of Donald Trump’s presidency. Finally, I have to jump on that bandwagon. John Leguizamo gives us a one-man show that fully warrants unkind references to the 45th president of the United States, as well as to Rep. Steve King and Sen. Ted Cruz. (More of-the-moment targets include Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.)
It’s called “Latin History for Morons,” which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Studio 54 after a successful run at the Public Theater earlier this year. While it’s an apt title, Leguizamo’s 90-minute show may best be enjoyed by theatergoers who are very familiar with the last 3,000 years of life in the Western Hemisphere.
This is not a warning, but there is that much history packed into “Latin History,” even though Leguizamo concentrates pretty much on the past 515 years, including such classroom clichés as Columbus and Montezuma and throwing in a few who are not, like Loreta Velasquez.
Even if you are one of the knowledgeable few who know all about this cross-dressing lieutenant in the Confederate Army, you will find “Latin History” both informative and hysterically funny in the way Leguizamo takes a subject, whether it be a mother’s funky leftovers or a nation’s mass genocide, and turns our perceptions inside out.
That will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Leguizamo’s previous stage shows “Ghetto Klown,” “Sexaholics,” and “Freak.” What is a real shock is Leguizamo himself in the flesh in 2017. Gone is The Strut that claimed the stage as his domain; in its place is a downright comfy vest-wearing professor-dad who can still do a mean rhumba or cha-cha but now pays the price afterward with the inevitable joint pain.
On stage at Studio 54, he recalls Christopher Lloyd in the “Back to the Future” films, and uses that same wired hair to magnificent effect to impersonate Andrew Jackson, among other heroes of the Trump administration, as well as Sigmund Freud.
Leguizamo’s writing and gift for mimicry, under the sharp direction of Tony Taccone, offer a trip through time that has little to do with Lloyd’s movies. “Latin History” is very much a lecture, but it’s never stuck in that classroom for long. It jumps between the bedroom of Leguizamo’s son (a middle-school student working on a term paper about heroes) to, say, the fall of the Mayan kingdom that borrows nothing from Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto.”
It’s a surreal journey and most enjoyable in little offhand moments like Leguizamo’s pornographic commentary as he draws the Americas on a chalk board — or the way he bitch-slaps a theatergoer for laughing too hard at his jokes.
The only forced moments come when he makes the occasional visit to his psychiatrist. This guy sees a shrink? Otherwise, “Latin History for Morons” is the most fun you’ll have in a classroom since “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All.”