Lorenzo Pisoni begins his one-man show Humor Abuse with a series of admonitions. "This is a show about clowning, and I'm the straight man," he announces; a few seconds later he adds, "I'm not funny." Before doing a comedy routine involving balloons, he says "I hate balloons." Before juggling, he admits that "Juggling is really frustrating." Before doing a skit that requires him to climb a ladder that reaches almost to the top of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre's proscenium, he admits "I'm afraid of heights."
Now that your expectations have been lowered, ask yourself: Is this man really the best host for a ninety-minute lesson on the discipline of physical comedy? The thirtyish Pisoni seems like a nice enough guy; he's got a headful of spiky black hair, a wistful smile (when he remembers to smile), and a friendly, sincere speaking style. He's pleasant, but he's just not very endearingand while he proves himself to be a wonderful clown, he's not much of a showman.
The highlights of Humor Abuse are extended silent clowning routines that build to big payoffs. A routine in which he demonstrates more than half a dozen ways to do a pratfall down a flight of steps is marvelous, as is one in which he climbs the aforementioned ladder while wearing flippers on his feet. What's best about these skits is how he maintains a deadpan expression of steely determination in the face of numerous self-constructed hardships. Pisoni's style is highly reminiscent of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and it's a real pleasure to see a contemporary performer so accomplished in this dying art form.
But this isn't so much a comedy show as it is a coming-of-age story, so most of the show is devoted to Pisoni's tale of growing up in a circus family. He recounts how his father, a clown who ran his own circus, drilled him in the ways of comedy, starting at the age of two; when we see Lorenzo attempt a back flip, a stern offstage voice commands him to "Do it again," even after he perfects the maneuver. Eventually, Lorenzo's tense relationship with his father becomes the dominant theme of the evening, overshadowing the slapstick. He admits that their relationship is an oddly distant one, and the fact that his conflict with his father is still unsettled makes this show, well, unsettling.
It's fascinating to see how hard young Lorenzo worked to perfect his skill, but the chronicle of his tutoring ends up making his routines seem more calculated than inspired. Pisoni really seems lacking when contrasted with the great clown Bill Irwin, who starred in The Happiness Lecture at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre last year (and got his start working for Lorenzo's dad three decades ago). Irwin's effortless ease onstage makes his work seem even more brilliant; Pisoni, on the other hand, recounts every ounce of effort it takes him to be funny, and that diminishes his work.
Humor Abuse is a good concept for a show that doesn't quite succeed. Pisoni's ongoing family issues need to be worked out somewhere other than on a stage. And while he's technically proficient, his self-conscious humility prevents him from being a completely engaging performer.
Humor Abuse is suitable for all ages, and I imagine high school students and budding actors could draw a lot from Pisoni's chronicle of how hard it is to make comedy work. But, if you want to see a one-man show that celebrates life, family, and art much more effectively (and makes you laugh harder in the process), walk a couple blocks north of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre to the Merriam Theatre. There, through next Sunday, you can see Billy Crystal in his hilarious and touching show 700 Sundays (which I had the pleasure of seeing on Broadway a few years ago). Crystal and Pisoni may not have much in common, but at least Crystal would never start a show by telling his audience, "I'm not funny."
Humor Abuse runs through October 25, 2009 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.