'Mambo Mouth' touches heart

March 13, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

John Leguizamo is an actor and writer known for being outrageous. So it's somewhat surprising that about half of the characters in his one-man show, "Mambo Mouth" -- being performed at the Forum Theater by Peter J. Mendez -- are xTC actually rather gentle, even -- dare I say it? -- endearing.

An anthology of seven Hispanic characters, from a teen-aged boy to a transvestite prostitute, this show -- which brought Leguizamo to national prominence in 1991 -- is often as hard-edged and graphic as the graffiti-decorated street bills plastered all over the set. But when appropriate, Mendez's performance also demonstrates how Leguizamo's characters can touch the heart.

The first is a public access TV host named Agamemnon, who suffers from delusions of grandeur, not to mention delusions of sex appeal and acting talent. Mendez's bare-chested Agamemnon is a male chauvinist of the first order. ("Don't fall in love with a beautiful woman," he advises. "Go for the ugly ones, and the loss won't mean as much.") But alternating lurid gestures with exaggerated attempts at bedroom eyes, Agamemnon comes across primarily as a pathetic buffoon.

Not so Angel Garcia, an angry, abusive bully we encounter in the precinct house after he's been arrested for wife-beating. Handcuffed and bloody, Angel spends his time on the phone begging various women -- beginning with the one who had him arrested and ending with his mother -- to post bail. Mendez starts these calls with syrupy ingratiation in his voice and ends them emanating so much downright meanness, you'd like to lock him away yourself.

The farthest extreme from this brutishness ironically turns out to be Angel's sweet-natured brother -- a transvestite hooker who calls himself "Manny the Fanny." Manny consoles the woman Angel assaulted and also tries to teach her a lesson in self-assertiveness.

Each of Leguizamo's characters pretends to be something he's not. In Manny's case, however, gender is the least deceptive element. Manny believes in self-respect, but his line of work suggests he has next to none himself.

The show's funniest character comes at the end -- a lecturer dubbed the "Crossover King." Dressed in a neat pin-striped suit, with his hands primly clasped, the King is a Hispanic who has discovered that the road to success lies in passing himself off as a repressed Japanese businessman. Mendez conveys this transformation with a finesse that is all the more apparent when the character experiences "little Latin relapses" -- those moments when his expressive nature wars against his newly restrained persona.

Mendez, a Washington-based actor, directed by Bill Toscano, reveals considerable versatility throughout "Mambo Mouth." He imbues each of his characters with such a distinct personality that by the end of the evening, you're thinking warm thoughts about half of his retinue and are darned glad to get away from the rest.

'Mambo Mouth

Where: Forum Theater, 912 Washington Blvd.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through (( March 30

Tickets: $15

Call: 410-576-2333

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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