For those too young to recognize Freddie Prinze’s name, he was a native New Yorker, the son of a German-American father and a Puerto Rican mother who was encouraged at an early age to be a dancer, but attended the LaGuardia High School as an actor, quitting school to try out as a stand-up comedian. His meteoric rise through comedy clubs, the Tonight Show and on to the pinnacle of showbiz, a starring role in a sitcom, made him a role model for many young—particularly Hispanic—comic hopefuls. His mop of black hair and huge smile were his trademarks, his smile hiding a deep depression that led him to kill himself in front of his business manager.
Sonera opens the show with Prinze doing one of his sets at the Improv Club in New York City, 1976, beginning with one of his famous lines, “Looking good!” and continuing with his sardonic comments about Puerto Ricans (“A lot of people think Puerto Ricans are responsible for cockroaches.”) and civil rights. He speaks of touring to Florida and the frustration of having to perform in front of old people and then goes on to disparage blacks and gays, all material that would be PI today, but delivered as a “nice guy” who’s just observing the world.
He talks of his childhood when a neighborhood guy named Henry would rob him daily of the dollar his mother would always give him for just that purpose.
Sonera alternates bits of Prinze’s act with backstage musings on his life addressed to an unseen person. On stage at the club Prinze introduces several comics who will become huge stars, including Jay Leno and Elayne Boosler. He wants to set the record right about reports of his violent, angry outbursts on the set of Chico and the Man, his drug use, reports of an illegitimate child and revelations of increasing difficulties in his marriage.
He gloats about how his family got into his all-white Washington Heights apartment building: his very tall, white, blue-eyed dad closed the deal, bringing along his Puerto Rican spouse and dark-skinned son later to introduce the “smell of rice and beans” and a “Puerto Rican flag hanging out the window” to the uptight building.
His stories of coping with being chased by gangs and nearly dying of asthma attacks indicate how Prinze developed a backbone, needed to survive in the cutthroat world of stand-up comedy.
His funny revelations of fame’s drawbacks—bad press, a worried mom, lack of privacy, run-ins with the police, etc.—belie how Prinze’s fame affected his mind and deepened his depression. He manages these autobiographical stories using reenactments, taking on the role of his mom, his manager, etc. He also takes time to extol his predecessors like Lenny Bruce and, most of all, David Brenner, who helps him up the ladder of success.
On Kurler Warner’s simple set (a sofa, a desk, a chair, etc.), wearing Lisa Montalvo’s casual, but distinctly 1970’s outfits, J. Jarad Janas’ wigs and Tanisha Kerri-Ann’s makeup Sonera makes a convincing looking Prinze.
Sonera’s Prinze is stronger on biographical data than emotional heft. He is a talented actor, slipping from the spotlight Prinze to the backstage Prinze with ease, as well as acting several of the important people in his life.
As directed by Melissa Cardello-Linton, the show runs smoothly as the facts tumble out swiftly—depressing ones following happy ones—yet what drove Prinze to suicide remains a mystery, its agonizing secrets not revealed either by Sonera’s Prinze or his Prinze.
Prinze: The One-Man Show (through November 18, 2018)
Sheen Center for Thought & Culture, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.sheencenter.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission