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Humor Abuse

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lorenzo Pisoni
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lorenzo Pisoni is one actor whose father never encouraged him to stop clowning around. Quite the opposite: Larry Pisoni outright encouraged it. It was, after all, the family business, and he wanted his son to take entertaining others as seriously as he did. That the younger Pisoni has no only learned that lesson well but seen fit to impart it to others, via his thoroughly charming and largely amusing one-man show Humor Abuse at Manhattan Theatre Club, is one sign that good parenting hasn't floated off into the stratosphere like an improperly held helium balloon.

What Lorenzo also makes obvious in the show, which he's created with director Erica Schmidt, is that love is no laughing matter. As much as Humor Abuse is a selection of funny-bone-assaulting acts and anecdotes, it's also a collection of tragic familial love stories: about Larry and his wife; about Larry and his clown character of 25 years, Lorenzo Pickle; and especially about Larry and Lorenzo Pisoni. The extent to which the show succeeds (which it does often) and the extent to which it fails (which it does occasionally) can be attributed directly to these relationships and the art and heart they inspire.

Anyone who's followed New York theatre recently has likely been exposed to Lorenzo's considerable talent as an actor-acrobat. He most recently appeared as Daniel Radcliffe's equine lord interest in Equus on Broadway, but he's brought his chiseled features and lighter-than-air physicality to a wide selection of stemmy threatening and steamy heartthrob roles. (For example, in the As You Like It Schmidt directed for The Public Theater in 2003, he played both the brutish Oliver and his wall-scaling brother Orlando - simultaneously.) Yet he's often evinced a smoky remoteness, as if to always say, "You don't know who I really am."

He rectifies that here, explaining in 70 breezy minutes the improbable upbringing that made him such an unequaled talent. Lorenzo got his start in Larry's touring show, The Pickle Family Circus, at age two, and remained with it full-time until he was 13. He worked intimately with his perfectionist father (most notably in a Pinocchio-and-Geppetto routine) and came to revere him as a master silent laugh-getter who could command any audience with precise improvisational precision. Larry was ceaselessly demanding, critical, and even totalitarian - but gave and got from Lorenzo exactly what both wanted.

Then they did what fathers and sons tend to: they grew apart. Lorenzo began seeing Larry's flaws, and wanted a normal teenager's life; Larry wanted to hang onto it at any cost, including, eventually, Lorenzo Pickle. But the two men found something special in each other that supported and advanced the other as an artist, and that gave them a bond that no acrimony or distrust has been able to break. Lorenzo's show is proof that, whatever else has happened, Larry bestowed him the gift of comedy not by book-bound education, but by personal experience.

So Lorenzo is strongest continuing the line in the same way, whether channeling the coarseness of commedia dell'arte (playing several roles at once), by presenting his own clown act, or by invoking the spirit of Lorenzo Pickle in the ultimate tribute to his father's most lasting legacy. Through many of these routines, Lorenzo is completely silent, but says so much through his stage-spanning expressions, twinkling eyes, and intense concentration on effortlessness that spoken narration would be superfluous. His skills at juggling and dodging falling sandbags (in one of the evening's choicest bits) are equally unimpeachable.

He's less successful relating his story in other ways. He and Schmidt do not avoid the trite - "That would involve communication," Lorenzo says about the silence he faced when asking his father about some early bewilderment, "and we didn't really do that" - or reveal many facets about Lorenzo or Larry that provide much of a glimpse into their personalities beyond the circus ring. And although Lorenzo couldn't be more suave a physical performer, many of his line readings concerning more intimate feelings and experiences are stilted and reluctant,as if he's still trying to understand the man who would talk about them. When he concludes later in the show, "I was born to be my father's straight man," it's easy to believe it's a role he's still trying to outgrow.

But he's underestimating himself. Humor Abuse contains more clean, concentrated, and honest laughs than most any other new show this season, and that couldn't happen without a keen comic presence at its center. So what if Lorenzo is still charging his own personal star? His show comes close to being electric the more he and his father work the generator together.

Humor Abuse
Through April 12
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets: New York City Center

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