By Alex Miller
Freddie Prinze, Sr. shot himself in the head in 1977. But tonight, he’s alive.
Kurler Warner’s set design is simple: a blue light casts an ominous glow over a TV tray table. A bottle of wine, a cigarette and an ashtray, tabloids, and a water glass stand on the table. Not 20 feet away, a coffee table, a whiskey glass, and two chairs complete the set.
With an amazing, perfectly coifed Freddie do arranged by J. Jared Janas, combined with a mustache and dimples he must have stolen from Prinze himself, Jose Sonara casts a likeness nothing short of striking.
Ms. Montalvo’s costume design gives us that lava lamp pattern quintessentially 70s, plus a baggy yet tight shirt and skinny yet slightly flared bellbottoms only a few years away from coming back in style.
Freddie says, “Any Puerto Ricans here?” The crowd makes its members known. “Well, that’s all you need!” After our hysterical response, he flashes that smile that seems to say I’ve got you now.
Sonera, interestingly enough, went to LaGuardia High School, like the man he portrays. It’s as if he knew he would play this part one day and told destiny his plans. Washington Heights-born and raised, Prinze never knew of Hell’s Kitchen-born Sonera, but they could have been classmates in high school, one imitating the other so often they provided each other’s punchlines.
Throughout the performance, he pleads with the audience to distrust the tabloids. Those aren’t the real Freddie. We want to believe him. But how can we?
Sonera’s play is divided into stand-up sets interrupted by one-on-ones with the audience-which quickly devolve into a mishmash of epic rants in which Prinze, and his paranoia, claw their way out of his mind and into yours. He completely owns every square foot of the stage, swigging wine, popping pills, and crushing up the perfect lines. Tension fills the room as his temper tantrums send periodicals flying in every direction.
Then, like now, race is ever-present. He was born Frederick Karl Pruetzel to a Hungarian father and Puerto Rican mother.
“They’ll let you move up as a minority.” Him: Pause. “But somebody has to take your place. Somebody has to clean the toilets if you don’t.” Us: light laughter, heavy nodding.
He describes a greater sense of power for African Americans immediately after the 60s.
“Table for two? You’ll be sitting here,” says a waiter.
Sonera’s Freddie’s black man notes: “Naw sucka, I’ll be sitting over THERE!”
As he puts it, Jaws was one shark, attacking one type of person, in one place. Great White. WASPS. Island in Massachusetts.
“My daddy was this tall, blue-eyed Hungarian man. Nobody knew he’d be bringing Puerto Ricans with him. Cuz once you get one in an apartment, they all come.” None of us can withhold his or her guffaws, though we feel guilty.
“Aye dios mio, mijo!” his mother, the staunchest of Catholics, crosses her heart when he asks for permission to drop out of school and follow his not-so farfetched dreams of stardom. One year, he promises, is all it would take. If not, he’ll become a priest. She needn’t have worried. He’d be a superstar by 19.
At 18, he was the first comic called over to Carson’s couch after his first appearance. If you don’t think that’s impressive, Eddie Murphy did it, too…after becoming famous on “Saturday Night Live.”
From Sonera’s movement across the set, courtesy of Ms. Brown (Production Manager/Stage Manager/Sound), to the masterfully incorporated, authentic audio from Prinze’s gigs, the production pulls you back into the 70s. These experiences are palpable, with one part of the play thumping a lively rendition of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” along with Freddie’s gyrations on the stage now alive with the red, yellow, green, and blue of an LA club’s dancefloor.
Prinze’s idol is Lenny Bruce, though he holds an unearthly, though not uncommonly-shared hatred for Andy Kaufman, whose Tony Clifton character unabashedly causes ruckus after ruckus everywhere he goes. In a seamless impersonation of the character, Prinze recalls an encounter backstage at The Comedy Store. After a night of being badgered by the dude-inside-the-dude shouting, “I told you, I’m Tony Clifton, not Andy Kaufman, you asshole!,” he twists Clifton’s arm behind his back and becomes the “only man to make Andy Kaufman say he’s Andy Kaufman…while being Tony Clifton.”
If there’s anything I would suggest Mr. Sonera do, it’s slow down. I understand he must make his Freddie unique, but you can’t rush the jokes in pursuit of that homage. The energy sometimes gets the best of him, and on those occasions the audience finds itself in a search party with a dim light.
“I want to be the king of comedy,” he informs David Brenner, the comic legend who discovered him. Brenner laughs: “Alan King already exists!” The audience emits a collective “Ooohhh.” We finally get it, before Prinze even finishes explaining that he only added the “Z” because there were too many Princes in the phonebook for him to be unique.
There’s no wonder the show’s General Manager Christopher Ketner, (a Tony-nominated producer for the Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”) got behind this production. Under Melissa Linton’s (a former Assistant Director for David Mamet’s “American Buffalo”) direction this beautifully crafted work of art is as funny as it is heartbreaking.
Throughout it all, you forget that Prinze was only 22 when he died.
For his final act, Prinze calls his wife, who recently filed for divorce, asks to hear his baby boy’s breathing, then drops the phone as the lights say goodbye to a legend gone too soon. The production may claim to last 105 minutes, but I swear, with applause, we pushed it up to at least 112.
“PRINZE the one man show”
Written and Performed by Jose Sonera
Director: Melissa Linton
Costume Designer: Lisa Montalvo
Photo: courtesy of the production
Sept. 21 at 9pm
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
Oct. 25-Nov. 18 at 7:30pm
18 Bleecker St.
New York City
ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.