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Theatre in Review: Prinze (Sheen Center)

Jose Sonera.

The meteoric rise and equally fast flameout of comedian Freddie Prinze is the topic of this frequently wrenching solo show. (He broke through in 1973 and was dead by 1977, six months before his twenty-third birthday.) Of mixed Puerto Rican and Hungarian heritage -- he called himself a "Hungarican" -- he enjoyed a major breakthrough at a time when Bill Dana's José Jiménez routine was still the height of "ethnic" humor. As Jose Sonera's script makes clear, Prinze achieved stardom at the age of nineteen, but it was a goal toward which he had been working all his life.

Growing up in Washington Heights, Prinze learned early on to entertain his mother with comic acting out. (Sonera hints, without quite saying so, that the comedian's father, a more distant figure, thanks to his night job as a tool-and-die maker, may have been a source of some sadness.) A misfit -- "not Puerto Rican enough" -- and afflicted with asthma bad enough to land him in the hospital, he turned his trying circumstances into jokes, winning attention and affection. He earned admission to The High School of Performing Arts and, in one of the show's most telling passages, recalls how he stole whole scenes in a school production of Barefoot in the Park by turning the minor character of a Jewish telephone repairman into a Puerto Rican wiseacre. Soon, he was spending most of his time at clubs like Catch a Rising Star -- "Whatever spots -- I could do two, three in the morning" -- where he subdued hostile audiences by honing a totally personal comic approach, spinning jokes about muggers, cockroaches, and the New York melting pot into big-time laughs. Before long, he was a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson -- a career milestone for which many slaved in vain -- and, finishing his routine, earned the ultimate accolade: He was invited to sit on the couch, poised between Carson and top guest Sammy Davis, Jr.

You can see that fateful Carson appearance on YouTube today, and while Prinze is clearly slaying, it's difficult, at this remove, to see what all the shouting was about. The jokes are pretty mild, even when they trade on obvious stereotypes about Puerto Ricans and blacks. In Prinze, Sonera, who also stars, proves to be a far more dynamic performer than his subject, landing more laughs than he has any right to with this aged material. The play unfolds during a performance at The Improvisation in LA. Prinze is the host for the evening, and, between doing some bits and introducing the likes of Jay Leno and Elayne Boosler, he repairs to his dressing room, where, speaking to an indeterminate number of members of the press -- he tries to set the record straight about his well-advertised personal problems.

It's not a criticism to say that Prinze's routines aren't very funny; they are fascinating, revealing what the traffic would bear in the mid-1970s, and Sonera's fiercely committed performance more than compensates for their general weakness. (Similarly, Prinze's series, Chico and the Man, is presented as part of a trinity of ethnic-based comedies -- the others being All in the Family and Sanford and Son -- that remade network television, but there's probably a reason it is never seen today.) The onstage/backstage setup works fairly well but for the fact that, as the star begins to unravel, he drinks more and more, snorts coke, and spins out of control. Would a celebrity who firmly believes that attending rehab would be career suicide really snort up in front of an already critical media?

Still, there's something darkly gripping about seeing Prinze spin out of control in real time, as the carefully polished account of his rise to fame gives way to the ugly realization that having your own TV series, and entrée to an endless number of Hollywood parties, means very little if you have no friends or loved ones. (A particular source of bitterness is those in the Latino community who criticize his casting in Chico and the Man because he is only half Puerto Rican.) By this point, his wife -- whom he has praised as a grounding, no-nonsense presence -- has filed for divorce and obtained a restraining order, keeping him from seeing his beloved infant son. Mired in litigation, angry and controlling on the job, and feeling utterly alone in his personal life, he is sliding toward oblivion and there is no one to stop him.

Sonera meticulously charts Prinze's descent into furious self-destruction with enormous skill, creating a tense, anything-can-happen atmosphere that leaves the audience nervously awaiting the worst. (A late-night phone call to David Brenner, his onetime mentor, is especially poignant.) The piece, which runs about an hour and forty-five minutes, could benefit both from a bit of trimming and an infusion of details. A fairly lengthy sequence in which he acts out a good chunk of the pilot of Chico and the Man -- playing Prinze, co-star Jack Albertson, and an unnamed guest star -- is dull and could easily be cut; this would leave more room for a fuller delving into Prinze's marital problems as well as his ongoing battle with David Jonas, the manager he fired and battled with in court for years - a situation that was a prime source of his unappeasable anger.

Still, Melissa Cardello-Linton's direction highlights the piece's strong dramatic arc. The production values are quite basic, as this seems to be a shakedown production for a show that means (and deserves) to go elsewhere. Prinze isn't a pretty story, but it's a fascinating slice of show business history as well as an arresting portrait of a talented performer caught in the contradictory demands of American culture. Sonera sadly reveals that Prinze's all-too-brief career was a high-wire act -- and the young man never worked with a net. -- David Barbour

(30 October 2018)

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