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Manhattan Theatre Club

Humor Abuse

a true story by Erica Schmidt and Lorenzo Pisoni

25 March 2009 (City Center)

Humor Abuse, a one-man show created by the one man, Lorenzo Piaoni, and Erica Schmidt, takes place at the moment in time when clowns were actors and human beings were the creatures jumping through hoops. The last time this moment occurred was probably in the early Seventeenth Century the last time, that is, before last night, when I saw the show. I had no idea, at first, that this theatrical memoir was nearly as artful as it is until it was almost over Humor Abuse lasts seventy- five minutes, short for a play but long for a sustained act of virtuosity. I thought that we were going to be amused by Mr Pisoni's recollections of growing up in a trunk. Humor Abuse night well have been a dramatic monologue tweaked to come across as a standup routine, with a few acrobatic gags and the eloquent deployment of childhood snapshot, and this is doubtless what many members of the audience will remember it to have been.

Before the applause died down, though, I knew that I had just witnessed, very literally, a masterpiece. Everything that Lorenzo Pisoni learned about being a clown, from earliest childhood on, is brought to bear here. I don't mean that he shows us every trick that he knows. I mean that he frames his very unusual life story in the conventions of Italian clowning. The life story is a ramshackle, California affair of countercultural parents and irregular schooling; the clowning could not be more rigorous. Mr Pisoni lived one life inside the other, the little acrobat whose father was his partner; in Humor Abuse, he lives them both simultaneously, with such past-mastery that it's almost unnatural to think about what he's doing while he's doing it.

(I call it "Italian clowning" because I don't know what better to call it. I'd rather call it commedia dell'arte, but that would be more misleading than informative. I am at any rate not speaking of the kind of antics that we associate with Bozo.)

Mr Pisoni dashes on to the stage at the beginning in the persona of a hapless, well-meaning substitute. This is a one-man show about clowns, he tell us, but he himself (sadly) is not funny. He flashes a brilliant smile as he tells us this, very successfully presenting himself as a nice young man whose only other special gift is a blandly handsome face. He's not what we may have expected, he cautions us, but he'll do his best. We're clearly to understand that he is setting himself up for failure. And it's true: he's not funny. He's so good at being not funny that we laugh at him.

This young man proposes to tell us about his father, who was a clown in a special sort of West-Coast, open-air operation, the Pickle Family Circus. We learn, without being told in so many words, that this father is still alive. That's interesting; usually, this sort of show is a memorial. And there are "issues." Issues with a living parent! It's almost rather frightening. Protocol dictates that, if you have issues with people who are still living, then you work them out before airing them in public. Otherwise, you risk turning the theatre into one of those awful daytime television shows made up of equal parts of confrontation and confession. Is Mr Pisoni going to embarrass us?

That's really like asking if he is going to hurt himself at the climax of his first sustained act, the routine that he developed during his two years as a solo circus performer. His father had taken off! His mother now worked in the circus office. Did Lorenzo think that he would win his father back by going on the road? Mr Pisoni and Ms Schmidt are far too clever to bore us with that kind of information. Instead, we get the act, which involves, as a say, a ladder, a bathing cap, goggles, flippers, and a staple-gun. It is not funny. You can't stop laughing, because of course it is funny; but it is also so not funny. As Lorenzo limps up the ladder, fouling his flippers in the rungs and wincing from pain caused by staples intended to keep them from falling off, we wonder how this high dive into the little pail of water is going to end. We may wonder what on earth is so funny. I did. My wife, Kathleen, was covering her eyes. But we were both laughing.

How could decent parents let their son go on tour with a circus, all by himself, at the age of ten? How? With every step of the ladder, the "how" grows louder. But you can't hear it, because everybody is laughing.

The other act, which concludes Humor Abuse, begins with Mr Pisoni's disclosure that, during the last three years, his father, christened "Larry," has been calling himself "Lorenzo." He has stolen his son's name, and, just this once, Mr Pisoni will allow that it makes him "mad." The power of this understated confession is enough to bring all the rage at the end of I Pagliacci to mind: should we run for the exits now? What follows is the recreation of the elder Pisoni's act, involving a trunk and some trick balloons, and ending with the demonstration of what prevents the former Larry from performing the act any more. Never in my life have I seen such coolly exacted revenge and it is not an act! It is not the representation of revenge but the revenge itself. And we're laughing.

Everything that we've seen in Humor Abuse assures us that Lorenzo's love of his dad has not burned out, so the revenge is not hateful. Our thinking so may be just as reflexive and unthinking as our laughter. It doesn't matter much. Hostility and the possibility of hatred have been so beautifully wrapped in the tissue of a venerable Italian art form that what might have been a wrenching theatrical experience has been wrought into an uproarious intermezzo with a melancholy aftertaste. Only one thing is certain: if and when we see this show again, we won't fall for that hapless substitute act at the start. We'll know that the kid is a maestro. (26 March 2009)

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