Created by Lorenzo Pisoni and Erica Schmidt
Performed by Lorenzo Pisoni
Directed by Erica Schmidt
American Conservatory Theater (ACT), San Francisco
Aug. 3-19, 2012
Lorenzo Pisoni may not have been literally born in the proverbial trunk but he comes pretty darn close. Son of Pickle Family Circus founders Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider, he grew up in the rough and tumbling tradition of the (small) Big Top and, by the time he was two, became part of the show. Now a New York actor, he revisits his past in the funny, poignant memoir “Humor Abuse.” Co-created with fellow Vassar alum Erica Schmidt, who directs it, “Humor” premiered at ACT last year and is on a brief late summer visit home, after stops at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York and Seattle Rep (where the above video clip was shot). If, like this reviewer, you were foolish enough to miss it first time around, run, don’t walk, to catch it before it’s gone.
Charming, movie star-handsome (think Ben Affleck), with a deadpan delivery, in the course of 90 minutes Pisoni clowns, juggles, tap dances, balances his hat on his nose, falls downstairs (a lot) and, with the aid of an omnipresent trunk full of surprises, changes costumes on a dime as he tells the bittersweet tale of his father’s life — and life with his father. The title gives you a pretty good clue as to how that went.
Larry Pisoni was a beloved San Francisco legend: a master clown who put on a pretty great little show on a shoestring. Not so much fun around the house, though, according to his son. A benevolent tyrant who was short on praise, made Lorenzo sign a contract at age six and never failed to put a plastic banana in the kid’s lunchbox, Pisoni père was a perfectionist — which probably was what made him a master of his art. Lorenzo, who gave up his childhood to follow in his dad’s outsize footsteps (clowns wear big floppy shoes), both worshipped and resented his father and the show is both a loving homage and a complaint.
Life with the Pisonis was not all fun and games for sure and, as the years went on, it became less so. Larry drank, lost his temper and some of the respect of the troupe. He left the show but 13-year-old Lorenzo stayed on, taking over all his father’s old tricks and (painfully) concocting a few of his own. The parents divorced; Lorenzo eventually entered high school and lived with his mom back in San Francisco, trying to make up in his teen years what he had lost as a little kid. He went to college, worked in Cirque du Soleil and finally made it to Broadway. Larry, on the other hand, began a gradual downhill slide that included another failed marriage and, ultimately, an injury that put an end to his career. It’s almost Oedipal but told with such love, wit and compassion that you’re not always sure if you should laugh or cry. Mostly you laugh.