After trying to escape from his clown family as a child, Lorenzo Pisoni wore a button reading “I belong to the circus” by order of his father. For better or worse, this appears to be true: “Humor Abuse” is a clown show of the highest order, but it’s also Pisoni’s autobiography. As the performer limns his difficult relationship with his dad, he breaks out a top-tier ladder routine, a terrifying series of falling sandbag gags and plenty of expert pratfalls. Other solo performers, take note: You can describe your troubled childhood, but can you do it with balloons?
For his most improbable factoids, Pisoni offers proof — photos projected onto the canvas curtain behind him. For the “I belong to the circus” story, though, there’s an additional surprise: The man holding the serious-looking toddler wearing the button is none other than master clown Bill Irwin. Anyone looking to fill Irwin’s shoes is going to have his work cut out for him (especially since those shoes don’t even fit Irwin), but Pisoni is working hard in the very same tradition, and here, those classic routines have the added texture of a confused child’s very real relationship with his distant father.
Pisoni’s clowning comments on his narrative in some painful ways: Anybody can say “Nothing was ever good enough for my father.” Very few can perform an elaborate bit in which Pisoni’s character repeatedly, hilariously fails to give a balloon to an older man from the audience. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the look on Pisoni’s face as he realizes the balloon has escaped again is worth a million.
A clown character, after all, is someone who can’t even do the simplest things right — for a boy growing up in the circus, the simplest things included juggling objects of different weights, balancing one’s hat on one’s nose and hiding in a small trunk until needed. For a child constantly worried about disappointing his dad, clowning is the most natural thing in the world.
Then there’s the confusion about who Pisoni’s father actually is. Is it Larry Pisoni, or is it Lorenzo Pickle, leader of the Bay Area’s Pickle Family Circus? For a child, the choice seems natural. Larry is unreliable, demanding, occasionally violent; Lorenzo Pickle is kind, clever and makes everyone laugh. A further question, then: When Larry fell the wrong way and hurt his back so badly he couldn’t clown anymore, did Pisoni’s father die?
These are uncomfortable issues, but Pisoni doesn’t allow them to dominate the scene. Instead, we catch glimpses of desperation in the performance itself, when he intentionally flubs a backflip or nearly parts his hair with a plummeting sandbag. A performer who grew up pushing himself to his physical limits to get approval from his father, Pisoni now pushes those limits as a matter of course. (He most recently took on the intense physical demands of the lead horse role in the Broadway revival of “Equus.”)
It’s a lot of food for thought from a clown show, but then, comedy is about surprise, and “Humor Abuse” is nothing if not surprising. Now that everyone is worried about money, too many Gotham venues are housing cheap solo shows that indulge a performer for 90 minutes and then send the audience home, not always enriched by the experience. Pisoni’s show is everything those shows could be: funny, entirely theatrical and performed by somebody demonstrating (and deconstructing) his maniacal devotion to a difficult craft.