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Fever Pitch

UCB's Paul Downs scores big with solo character show.

By Cristina Merrill / Jester correspondent

Photo by Seth Olenick

Paul Downs mixes hilarity with intensity in “The Paul Downs Syndrome,” seen September 9 at the UCB Theatre. The show defines the title syndrome as unrelated episodes of perversion suggesting a deranged mind. Deranged indeed. Downs opens the show by reenacting his birth. Encased in a stretchy, red sheet that showed his (presumably) naked body in silhouette, Downs danced a routine that combined a variety of forms, including interpretative and the can-can.  From this piece, Downs transitioned into another where he emerges dressed as a woman. Rocking a long, blonde wig and sporting a country accent, Downs introduces himself (herself?) as the veejay for MTV Europe, frequently interspersing the opening monologue with the phrase “Hey guys!” These opening pieces of the show were a sign of good things to come. Downs exhibited endless, contagious energy throughout the show, not to mention superb command of his material. This is no easy feat for a one-man act, but when you are funny and versatile, it’s hard to flop. 

Downs showed this versatility, and his willingness to push the envelope, in a sketch that used voice-over narration as he played a deranged, super spy-type who could decipher messages from babies. Wearing jeans and a black tank top and holding a fake gun in one hand and a baby doll in the other, Downs claimed that “babies hold the secrets to the world. And I hold the secrets to babies.” Downs alternated between doing bodily harm to the baby doll and cooing to it. Pushing the envelope further, Downs ended the skit by making out with the baby doll (“the one baby he couldn’t resist”).

Downs’ best character is a sexually deviant hip-hop star who wins a “Cushball Award” from MTV Europe. Wearing a beanie, two pairs of sunglasses (one covering his eyes, the other perched on his beanie) and a black tank top strategically laced to show off chest hair, Downs’ character gives a long thank-you speech in which he talks about things that keep his “juices flowing.” He says that he would love to make love to his teenage fans (“no matter what your age”) and brags about his “ability to maintain an erection for over one day.” He ends up serenading a tall female audience member on stage and points out that her height gave him more to love.

Downs took the multimedia route and interjected his performances with overhead narration and a variety of videos, including two that featured him with actresses Kristin Chenoweth and Vanessa Williams. Both ladies, essentially, played themselves. Both duets drew laughs from the audience, but the skit with Williams was especially well done and had far better comedic timing. In this skit, Downs pitched script ideas to Williams that involved different scenarios but all ended with him holding her “naked, shivering body,” much to her confusion.

Downs’ versatility really came through when he played Mikey, a famous and endearing child actor who is pushed to the brink of exhaustion by his overbearing stage mother. His fame and fortune come at the heavy expense of having an actual childhood. He was forced to perform take after take, and became sadder with each one because he wanted to go out and play. Finally, he burst into tears and told child viewers that if they have a puppy, to “pet it because I bet it’s amazing.” He calmed down eventually, and said he just wanted to go back to his hotel and “have some sashimi.” While this skit provoked more sympathy than laughter from the audience, Downs managed to accomplish something that so many comedians strive for: the ability to make an audience laugh while the character they play is in tears (Rita Wilson in “Sleepless in Seattle” being the best example of this).  

If there is anyone who can make comedy intense and funny, it is Paul Downs. He is versatile and willing to take risks. What’s more, he is a developed performer who can carry the weight of an entire show. That being said, he needs to stop playing child characters. While his portrayal of an abused child star generated laughs, it was almost too real to be funny (Michael Jackson, anyone?). Child actor issues aside, Downs is clearly on the verge of something big, and it will be interesting to see what he does next.

The Paul Downs Syndrome returns to the UCB Theatre on Thursday, September 23.

   

     

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