W. C. Fields once said, “Comedy is a serious business.” Perhaps that’s why comedies like “The Trip” or the play “Humor Abuse” have such dark underbellies despite the seemingly light subject matter. While “The Trip” was a film rife with laugh-out-loud impressions, it was also a meditation on loneliness and middle age. “Humor Abuse” is more about both the excitement and loneliness of having a clown for a father; it’s humorous but not all that funny.
“Humor Abuse” is a one-man show starring Lorenzo Pisoni as himself, a professional clown since the tender age of two. Lorenzo informs us that during childhood, he suffered from “humor abuse.” In his family, making people laugh was valued above all else, and Lorenzo suffered for these laughs. To get a second scoop of ice cream, he had to do a double take routine with his father. Also, Lorenzo learned to juggle fiberglass batons without lessons, and because his hands were too small to grip them, they’d often fall, break and cut up his hands. Years later, he discovered that kid-sized batons existed, but his parents never bothered to mention these to him.
By age five, Lorenzo had signed a contract to tour with the circus and was officially his father’s partner. At 12, he toured without his parents. In “Humor Abuse,” you really get the sense of just how much Lorenzo loved being in the circus. He loved that his father treated him as an equal because they were partners. He loved that he got to see his father in action at work, enjoying himself and being amazing. But it also meant he grew up fast; Lorenzo discovered his father wasn’t really infallible early on, a fact that was difficult to reconcile with his idolized image of his father. It was fun being in the circus, but it was hard work, too.
The production does a marvelous job of balancing the story, showing us the good and the bad in the circus life and why Lorenzo is so conflicted about being a clown. The result is a very honest and poignant story of the difficulties of grappling with childhood, made all the more exciting by the fact that Lorenzo’s experience involved professional clowning.
Director Erica Schmidt succeeds at keeping the action going in the play; it never feels like a series of static monologues. And we never tire of Lorenzo, despite the fact that he is the only person ever on stage. Lorenzo gives a nuanced performance not only as himself but also as his father, re-enacting scenes and routines from his childhood with clowning skill and genuine emotion. He may not be able to make us laugh much while he falls down the stairs, but he can fall down them expertly. His performance is enriched by period photographs of him and his father projected onto a red, circus-like curtain at the back of the stage. The set design and props evoke the circus perfectly, creating an inviting atmosphere that works both for circus re-enactments and as a story-telling environment.
The problem with “Humor Abuse” is that so much time in the play is dedicated to gags that just aren’t funny, although the rest of the audience was laughing heartily. Lorenzo always plays the straight man to his father’s clown, and as he warns us at the beginning, he really isn’t very funny. Whether he’s doing a routine of falling down stairs or failing to climb a ladder while wearing diving fins, it only made me smile and think, as his father would have commented, “That’s funny,” but no laughter would occur. It’s a story about comedy, but it isn’t comedy: it’s dark and rarely hilarious.