If you don’t laugh your pants off when Lorenzo Pisoni, in enormous flippers, swim cap and goggles, struggles to clamber up a ladder and dive head-first into a small bucket of water, you might be clinically dead.
Although “Humor Abuse,” Pisoni’s solo autobiographical play about growing up in San Francisco’s iconic Pickle Family Circus, is at its heart a tender tribute to his irascible, and at times very difficult, father (Pickle co-founder and consummate clown Larry Pisoni, aka Lorenzo Pickle), it’s also a very funny clown show.
Pisoni the younger is a fine acrobat (a lengthy falling-down-the-stairs-with-suitcases routine provokes gasps and moans from the audience) and, despite his deadpan insistence that he’s a straight man, he’s undeniably hilarious.
Created by Lorenzo Pisoni along with savvy director Erica Schmidt, “Humor Abuse” has been a long time coming to San Francisco; it toured all over the country in recent years before arriving here for a true homecoming.
The opening-night audience at American Conservatory Theater (where Pisoni has previously appeared in plays) greeted him like a prodigal son, and deservedly so.
Pisoni’s story is about starting out practically as a toddler on the Pickles’ traveling stage. He learned routines from his very exacting but loving dad and worked alongside the likes of Geoff Hoyle and Bill Irwin (not to mention his mother, Pickle cofounder Peggy Snider, and his sister, Gypsy Snider, now in a circus in Montreal). By the time he was a preteen, Lorenzo was his dad’s professional partner and eventually toured with the circus by himself when Pisoni senior quit.
Projected archival images of father and cherubic small son at work and play accompany Pisoni’s affable, low-key narrative, played out on a mostly bare stage save for a steamer trunk and a few other props.
The ratty-looking onstage curtain is the original Pickle curtain. The interspersed clown acts — some created by Larry, others Lorenzo’s own new inventions — comprise a wonderful sampling of routines such as juggling and pratfalls, with lots of the latter, each funnier than the last.
Everything’s fast and fluid when it needs to be; Pisoni is a master of comic timing.
The show is also slower-paced and thoughtful when that’s required, especially when Pisoni gently, and without rancor, muses upon his unknowable father’s idiosyncrasies. “Why are you always so sad?” he wonders, posing questions that he could somehow never ask his dad. It’s a poignant question, one that necessarily goes unanswered, in this delectable show.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Sundays; closes Feb. 5
Tickets: $10 to $85
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org