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Review: In 'Humor Abuse,' a circus of derring-do, clowning, insight

This is a show about clowning, and I’m the straight man,” says actor Lorenzo Pisoni early on in “Humor Abuse,” currently sending Mark Taper Forum audiences skyward with the velocity of a helium balloon. He pauses, then adds, “Seriously.”

Pisoni is only being honest, albeit self-effacing, and thus begins a rapturous 90 minutes that sail past like cascading juggling pins. By keeping its knee-slapping, gasp-inducing and heart-tugging elements in quietly accelerating balance, this Obie-winning solo piece about growing up with the Pickle Family Circus lands an uproarious, astounding and affecting tour de force.

Co-created with ace writer-director Erica Schmidt, “Humor Abuse” follows a course as deceptively casual as the lights that designer Ben Stanton runs above our heads from upstage center, where the original Pickle curtain hangs behind a steamer trunk.

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The introduction, which follows a tussle with an uncooperative spotlight, launches a personal memoir doubly remarkable for being the truth, punctuated by recurring thematic motifs and projected vintage photographs.

Along the way, aided by Schmidt, Stanton and sound designer-composer Bart Fasbender, Pisoni offers a master class in clowning, from commedia vulgarity to death-defying slapstick and back again.

But Pisoni, whose Arrow Collar looks, crack timing and acute articulation are tailor-made for the acting career he eventually achieved, has more than classic routines on his mind.

Recounting his exposure from birth to the enterprise founded by parents Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider in '70s-era San Francisco,Pisoni locates an evanescent melancholy amid the nonstop belly-laughs and plentiful surprises, which shouldn't really be revealed here.

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Let’s just say that they include a hysterical, jaw-dropping use for the stage left staircase; a heart-stopping sequence involving sandbags; and an audience participation section that comes out of left field. And the flipper-clad climax, which incorporates a ladder, a bucket, tape and a staple gun, defies rational description.

Yet for all of Pisoni’s comic and physical aplomb -- equal parts Chaplin, Keaton, Nijinsky, Pickle alumnus Bill Irwin and a bendy straw, not to mention his parents -- what elevates “Humor Abuse” beyond fabulous display is its clear-eyed insight into the eternal round-robin between fathers and sons. That aspect, from childhood idolatry to realization of human frailties, runs through Pisoni’s entire autobiographical account and attains touching culmination at the denouement.

It’s such a degree of rancor-free earned wisdom, as much as Pesoni’s prodigious gifts and regard for his audience, that makes his virtuoso turn a sublime entertainment and an absolute must-see. Seriously.

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“Humor Abuse,” Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays.  No performance Sept. 24, 2:30 Sept. 28, Oct. 2-4, 1 p.m. Oct. 6. Ends Nov. 3. $20-$70. (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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