at the Briar Street Theatre

Forget the subtitle: Spic-O-Rama functions superbly. John Leguizamo’s collection of monologues, a work in progress originally unveiled at the Goodman Studio and now transferred to the bigger Briar Street Theatre, is hilarious, painful, and beautifully detailed. The short, athletic, intense, and chameleonic Leguizamo is a virtuoso impersonator whose lack of fame relative to, say, actors like Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg will surely be short-lived.

Or will it? The characters in Spic-O-Rama (directed and cowritten by Peter Askin) are Latino, like their creator. Because Leguizamo specializes in offbeat, quirky, even downright weird people who are also Hispanic–Spic-O-Rama depicts six members of a Colombian-Puerto Rican family in Queens, New York, gathered for the wedding of their eldest son–he’s sometimes accused of perpetuating Hispanic stereotypes of thugs, bimbos, and self-degrading Anglo wannabes. I don’t remember anyone complaining about white working-class stereotypes when Lily Tomlin’s little-girl character Edith Ann talked about her father blowing his factory-job check at the corner bar; what makes people worry about stereotypes in this case is that Leguizamo’s street freaks aren’t offset by many “regular” Hispanics in mainstream media. And Leguizamo himself is the first to point out that a white actor of his range–which is remarkable–would have a much higher career profile than he does. So Spic-O-Rama (like its off-Broadway predecessor Mambo Mouth) is something of a challenge: dig my talent, then tell me racism isn’t holding me back.

The challenge is implicit in the title–which is flung at us by little Miguelito Gigante, youngest of several brothers, who begins the evening by introducing us to his family in a schoolroom show-and-tell session. Recalling the time some other neighborhood kids called him a spic, he retaliates by inventing words that transform the slur into a triumphal proclamation: “I’m spictacular, spictorious . . . ” Despite such bravado, the attitude Leguizamo’s characters have toward their place in the family of man–and the family of Gigante–is best summed up by the pop record whose refrain repeats throughout the show: “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” (Credit superstar dance-club deejay Jellybean Benitez with the slick sound design–and while we’re at it, Ken Bowen with the kinetic lighting and Chauncey Street Productions with the tabloid-style video sequences in which outsiders comment on the characters.) Nine-year-old Miggy worships his oldest brother, Crazy Willie, a street hoodlum whose one claim to fame is his Desert Storm service (“We shot people who look just like us but with towels on their heads”) and who is actually planning to marry his longtime girlfriend–despite her resistance. (“Why can’t she lower her standards? I did.”)

Miggy’s less impressed with Raffi, who wants to be an actor and has apparently decided on Cary Grant as a role model. Claiming to be the illegitimate son of Laurence Olivier (who allegedly met his mom on the set of The Boys From Brazil–a funny choice considering that thriller’s theme of racial purification), the bleached-blond Raffi indulges in discount dreams of stardom and off-the-wall memories of how his acting talent came in handy with women if not with directors. Javier, the bitter fourth brother, is semiparalyzed and confined to a wheelchair; his cruelly comic monologue about encounters with a leather dominatrix named Vanna Blanca take the show to its farthest limit, while his nearly total stillness is startling after Leguizamo’s canny and agile use of movement in the other brothers’ vignettes.

Completing the family portrait are the mother and father. Leguizamo’s Gladyz is an aging flirt who tries to keep fit by doing stretching exercises while she keeps an eye on the family laundromat. (Anyone who’s ever ruined shirts in a coin-operated washer while a bored manager listlessly looks on will recognize how perfectly Leguizamo has captured this character and her setting.) The paunchy father Felix, noting Colombians’ reputation as drug gangsters, regales the wedding party with the love theme from The Godfather and offers his sons advice guaranteed to perpetuate the cycle of violence and dysfunction: “Sex is one of those things that gets better when you think of yourself first,” for example, or “What is life? The first half of it is destroyed by your parents and the last half is ruined by your kids.”

Inevitably one wonders how much of this is inspired by Leguizamo’s own life. His parents divorced when he was 13, for instance, four years older than Miggy; four more years seems a reasonable life expectancy for Gladyz and Felix’s marriage. Raffi is obviously Leguizamo’s parody of his own aspirations; Crazy Willie is the loser Leguizamo might have become if, as a troubled teenager, he wasn’t guided toward acting for therapeutic reasons; and hyperactive, overimaginative, gawky, and gaggle-toothed Miggy is the class clown Leguizamo became to win over the tough guys’ admiration so they wouldn’t beat him up. But such biographical speculations, and the few flaws that need to be worked out (mainly about 15 minutes of excess material), are less important than the meticulous physical and vocal detail that informs Leguizamo’s characterizations, making Spic-O-Rama extraordinary theater.