Tim Paul's Retarded at the Annoyance Theater: Live review
Tim Paul’s Retarded, which opened March 13 at the Annoyance and plays every Sunday at 9:30pm through April 3, opens not with an appearance by Paul, but rather with a familiar bunch of faces that go by the names of Natalie, Blair, Tootie and Jo. We’re shown a truncated version of an episode from the Facts of Life in which Blair dates a man who is intellectually disabled. The word ‘retarded’ is thrown around gratuitously in the episode, and for those of us who grew up on Facts of Life, the cringe factor is even worse than the show’s outdated fashions. Paul, a veteran improviser who appears frequently at the Annoyance and works extensively with Second City, has picked a juicy topic for his new solo show. His first job out of college was at a group home for the intellectually disabled and he draws on this experience for the framework for this new show. It’s an interesting work, but a few screws could use some tightening.
After making the audience effectively recoil at the Facts of Life clip (among others), Paul proceeds to offer historical data about ‘mental retardation’ and it’s fascinating to say the least. He touches on eugenics (a movement that advocates improving the genetic composition of a population) as well as Helen Keller’s role in improving the lives of people with developmental disabilities and the founding of the Special Olympics by Eunice Kennedy. I could’ve listened to this portion for hours.
Paul then segues into his own experience working at a group home as a means of attaining the elusive $500 signing bonus he’s promised. The ‘retards’ in question aren’t the intellectually disabled clients whom Paul works with and in some cases befriends, but rather the bizarre mélange of coworkers who prove to be inept and deceitful at every turn. We meet Missy, a 350-pound woman with a juvenile record who is also an S&M enthusiast; Terry, a God-fearing Kenyan woman with a disgust for homosexuals; and Eddie, a Haitian man who has fathered a child with his cousin. Both coworkers and residents offer much comic gold, and Paul digs for it at every opportunity. Referring to one low-functioning resident who masturbates frequently and has a vocabulary of just two words, Paul offers up the pithy line, "God gave him an inch for every word he knows." Although his delivery is stilted in places, there’s a wealth of compelling stories here that showcase Paul's skills as a raconteur.
The final third of the show is where more work needs to be done. Paul deconstructs the word ‘retarded,’ including its recent misuse by Rahm Emanuel and the subsequent denouncement by Sarah Palin. He lays out some interesting statistics (90% of intellectually disabled persons will be sexually abused, according to Paul) and advocates that removing the word from our vocabulary won't end the discrimination. But I would’ve liked to have seen Paul, who is openly gay, draw a stronger comparison between discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities and against LGBT-identified persons. As a gay man, Paul must know what it feels like to be pushed at times to the margins, and he might have shared more of that in this already personal piece. There's also a clumsy ending in which Paul solicits, via video, advice from a man with Down syndrome about his own thoughts on the word retarded. While the choice is an admirable one, the footage is not particularly compelling.
Paul has a brave and honest work on his hands, and he's on a roll when regaling us with stories from his group home, but Retarded still feels like a workshop piece with a few more beats to work through.