Review: John Leguizamo Goes for Easy Laughs in ‘Latin History’

So on a book-strewn classroom set by Rachel Hauck, the play intercuts cockeyed lectures about the past — from the decimation of the Taíno to the Trail of Tears — with an unlikely current-day family drama.

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“Latin History,” which appeared Off Broadway in the spring at the Public Theater, is Mr. Leguizamo’s sixth one-man show. Others include “Freak” and “Ghetto Klown.”

Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

In the lectures, Mr. Leguizamo comes off as a cross between Howard Zinn and Professor Irwin Corey, drawing impossible pie charts and ribald diagrams on a chalkboard and then acting out a brutal history in ludicrous skits. The physical comedy, often verging on dance, is priceless — “translating thought into action worthy of an Iron Man competition,” as Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times in March for his review of the Off Broadway premiere at the Public Theater.

But the family drama remains, as it seemed to me at the Public, rickety and unconvincing. Now as then, Mr. Leguizamo paints himself as a sitcom stick figure: a lovable schlemiel to his Jewish wife (who is “intolerant of intolerance”) and a dunderheaded dad to his up-speaking teenage daughter. Things are even worse with his son, whose bully problem is complicated by a homework assignment to write about a personal hero. Dad’s relentless suggestions — Latino warriors and gentle geniuses he’s discovered during his “intellectual jihad” — don’t help. They were all, the boy points out, defeated.

Mr. Leguizamo’s dimwit stance is unsustainable, in part because much of the history, despite the show’s premise, is actually quite familiar. You really would have to be one of the title characters not to be aware of cataclysms like the mass murder of Native Americans. And knowing that, you can’t help feeling the falseness of the effort to wring droplets of sarcastic pride from disasters retooled as comedy. When Mr. Leguizamo compares the Spanish conquistadors to “N.B.A. players at a Kardashian pool party,” you begin to wonder which way the satire hourglass is running.

Perhaps the apt comparison here is to Woody Allen, reconfiguring his idea of Jewish misfortune as wryness and working it out with a shrink. (Mr. Leguizamo’s sessions with his patrician psychiatrist are especially hoary.) The problem is that this Latino nebbish persona isn’t very credible when inhabited by a man of such obvious sophistication and sex appeal. You never believe his ignorance for a minute, any more than you believe his fatherly obliviousness. The setup and the emotional payoff it seeks are misaligned.

What is believable, though, is that the history Mr. Leguizamo outlines would make him angry. I wish he’d given us more of that, especially in a hasty segment about a dust-up he says occurred at a conference he attended in Dallas. In the real incident, Mr. Leguizamo apparently told booing attendees that Texas “hates its Latino people” — a provocation he omits in “Latin History for Morons.”

Nor does he mention here that he canceled a tour and called for a boycott of the state after its governor signed a law that would allow the local police to stop people — Latinos, presumably — without probable cause. Instead, he turns the events into a comic scene about his own intemperance, which may also be true but is not as compelling.

I get it: It’s a comedy, and a baggy one at that. It is built to accommodate digressions about Thanksgiving and Santería as well as opportunistic punch lines about Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. If the jokes land, does it matter so much that the framework is skimpy and the promised history skitters away from real danger? Or that the staging by Tony Taccone does little to regulate Mr. Leguizamo’s excesses? When I saw it, some heavy milking — and, to be fair, gales of audience laughter — had the show running at closer to two hours than the advertised 95 minutes.

It does matter. This is, after all, a show in which Mr. Leguizamo can credibly say, despite all his success in theater, television and film, that he feels “like a second-class citizen.” “Latin History for Morons” would be richer if he didn’t try so hard to make something so awful so funny.

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