Even before writer and performer Jose Sonera takes the stage in “PRINZE,” there’s a palpable sense of authenticity the permeates the stage. It’s in Kurler Warner’s “lived-in” set, replete with polyester disco jackets and forty-year-old Movieland magazines. It’s in the soft blue stage light that gives way to that warm amber color that seems to live exclusively in 70s polaroids. It’s even in the preshow announcement that welcomes the audience to the historic L.A. Improvisation theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard. But most importantly, it’s in Sonera, who not only looks the part in the stunning costume and wig by Lisa Montalvo and J. Jared Janas respectively, but sounds and acts the part of a certain late, great comedy legend.
“PRINZE” is the story of famed comedian and actor Freddie Prinze, Sr., told by the man himself, and as he puts it, “Tonight, I’m gonna tell you my side of it.” As previously mentioned, the show is set at the L.A. Improv in October 1976, where Prinze is headlining the evening’s stand-up comedy show. In between introducing other comics, Freddie moves “backstage” and speaks directly to the audience, often elaborating on stories he has only alluded to in his set. This fiendishly clever premise is the show’s secret weapon.
In the context of the stand-up show, Freddie performs his ever-relevant routine, ripe with cherry-picked knockouts from his real-life repertoire. In his dressing room, he tells personal stories about his career and family just as hilarious as the time-tested catchphrases and witticisms that made him a sensation four decades ago. There are occasional flashbacks thrown in for good measure, of Prinze’s performances on “The Tonight Show” and of the taping of the first episode of his primetime TV hit, “Chico and the Man.” Both interludes are delivered with razor precision and accuracy, each near word-for-word recreations of their respective real-life analogs. The focus on historical accuracy serves as both a highlight reel and a refresher for the audience – a delightful time capsule for those of us who’ve only ever seen the name “Freddie Prinze” end with a “Jr.”
But as slavishly faithful as “PRINZE”’s stylings are, they are all in service of a performance that’s as nuanced as it is riotously funny. Sonera’s Freddie exudes charisma, and his energy and charm keep the audience begging for more. By splitting the action of the play between the L.A. Improv stage and the dressing room, Sonera paints Freddie Prinze both as an electrifying entertainer and as a humble father trying to do right by his family. During his comedy sets Sonera is affable but reserved, never lingering on personal struggles and always thanking the audience profusely when they laugh at his well-timed jokes. But backstage, Sonera is at ease. There’s a comfort and honesty to his relation to the audience, and that comfort goes both ways. Sonera has a gift for comedy, and the brilliance of his timing and the accuracy of his impressions keep the theatre cackling away. But his sincerity and passion – the way he stumbles over himself when he talks about his love of the stage or the way his mouth twitches when he knows he’s landed the perfect punchline – keep Freddie sympathetic and endearing.
As likable as Freddie is, Sonera injects just enough doubt into his performance to keep the character vibrant and realistic. Towards the end of the play and as the comic’s career really begins taking off, Freddie’s more self-destructive tendencies begin surfacing. His drug abuse, paranoia and arrogance are all on full display, but so is his ever-changing conception of his own identity. As the action continues alternating between the stage and the dressing room, the line between Freddie’s persona as a comedian and as a struggling but earnest family man begins to blur. Even before he sinks completely into the depths of despair, you can feel Freddie losing himself in his fame as he struggles to define himself as anything other than a comedian.
Thankfully, Sonera is skilled enough to accomplish these subtle turns without the play ever seeming predictable or overbearing. There is a familiarity in the crying clown archetype on display here, but with all of the depth and nuance Sonera brings to the role, it’s practically imperceptible. By the time Freddie’s life starts to come off the rails, the actor has earned true empathy from the audience, one that’s difficult to cultivate and highly worthy of praise.
Of course, any show about a beloved icon and his tragic death is going to have some trouble keeping its audience from guessing its ending. In the case of Freddie Prinze, Sr., the famed comic who even more famously took his own life at the young age of twenty-two, maintaining any kind of mystery about the plot’s progression seems almost impossible. But here again, Sonera surprises in his confident, understated way. There’s no gunshot at the play’s finale – just the receiver of a phone crashing down on the stage floor as Freddie says goodbye to his loved ones for the last time. That ability to surprise, even in moments of immense tragedy, is “PRINZE”’s finest quality. As the man himself says, “You know what happens next, right? No, you don’t.” A must-see if ever there was one.
“PRINZE the one man show”
Written and Performed by Jose Sonera
Sept. 21 at 9pm
Director: Melissa Linton
Costume Designer: Lisa Montalvo
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.