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    Monday, May 20, 2024

    Say anything you want — comedian Paul Mecurio brings his one-man show to the United Theatre

    Paul Mecurio at DuBois Beach in Stonington Borough (Rick Koster/The Day)
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    Paul Mecurio’s “Permission to Speak” (John Lucchetti)

    As a successful furniture salesman at his mother’s store back in their Providence hometown, Paul Mecurio suspected he had a strong future as a communicator.

    He was 11.

    “I grew up in the family business and my mother had me selling couches to 60-year-old women, and I enjoyed it,” Mecurio says. “I learned so much watching my mom interact with customers. It wasn’t like she was trying to sell them something. She was having conversations with people. She was genuinely curious about them, and if they bought something, that was good, too. And I think some of that stuck with me.”

    Mecurio is now well known across the broad vista of the entertainment biz. For just a representative sample, he’s a stand-up comedian whose specials have aired on Comedy Central, HBO and CBS; he hosts the “Inside Out with Paul Mecurio” podcast (guests have included Bryan Cranston, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Spike Lee and Paul McCartney); he’s an Emmy and Peabody award winning comedian for his work on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”; and Mecurio is a recurring guest on broadcast news and sports outlets.

    He and his wife Carol also live for much of the year in the Lords Point section of Stonington. They began dating in high school and, as Carol had relatives in Stonington Borough, the couple have long considered the area an integral part of their lives together.

    In 2018, Mecurio unveiled a one-man Broadway show called “Paul Mecurio’s Permission to Speak,” a distinctive and well-received production which he’s bringing Sunday to the United Theatre in Westerly.

    Breaking down barriers

    “Permission to Speak” is decidedly not an evening with Mecurio casting a series of punchlines at fans. Rather, as he learned to do back pitching sofas, Mecurio … well, chats with members of the audience. Yep. And if that sounds less than overwhelming, you’re tragically underestimating Mecurio’s skill at drawing out and exploring the sort of great stories and anecdotes that all of us have experienced and want to share.

    “The premise is based on the fact that we’re all so divided in this country,” says Mecurio, who graduated from Georgetown University Law Center and worked on Wall Street before turning to stand-up. “But if we get together and share stories and let our guards down a little bit … if we don’t feel so muzzled by political correctness, we realize we have a lot more in common that we thought.”

    The concept works not just because of the highwire tension of a new audience and participants with each performance, but also because the production is so much more than just Mecurio standing onstage with people.

    When the audience members file into the theater, they see an open stage with a construct of various sized giant cardboard boxes — as though Mecurio hijacked a shipping warehouse to put on his show. But, as start time draws nigh, the boxes — which, it turns out, are not literal containers but video screens — begin to display stylized images of animated people moving as if on a crowded downtown street. Some are carrying posters and signs that read, “PERMISSION TO SPEAK.”

    Then the stage goes dark and Mecurio appears. “We all have a tendency to live in our own worlds,” he says after the applause fades out, “so tonight we’re gonna just hang out. We’re gonna tell some stories — and say whatever you want. Don’t worry about PC.”

    Countless stories

    Then, Mecurio begins to draw various crowd members up on the stage and, with casual and empathetic nuance — the world’s funniest couch salesman — orchestrates casual conversation that invariably leads to shared stories and anecdotes. It’s witty and real.

    Throughout the course of the various conversations, the boxes/screens morph in kaleidoscopic fashion using more animation as well as images of actual audience members. It’s a clever overall effect that dazzles even as it humanizes.

    “What I figured out is that people want to tell their stories. They NEED to tell their stories,” Mecurio says. “They can be funny, bizarre or touching or all three. But more often than not, we all relate.”

    Mecurio is quick to convey that, while he came up with the concept for the production, he needed a lot of creative input.

    A lot of help from his friends

    “The idea of ‘Permission to Speak’ is a testament, I think, to the idea that if you follow your instincts and you’re passionate about them, good things can happen,” he says. “It sort of grew organically because I’m not smart enough to have sat down in a room and planned something like this out. Fortunately, I have some incredibly accomplished and talented friends who are part of it.

    The show’s director is Frank Oz, renowned for his films “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “The Score” and “The Stepford Wives” as well as for creating and voicing Yoda and for working on “The Muppets.”

    “I’d had Frank as a guest on a podcast and he talked and was such a really kind, great guy,” Mecurio says. “I had him on my list of contacts and thought, ‘Why not call him?’ And he came to an early walk-through and saw the potential.”

    By email, Oz says he’s directing “Permission to Speak” because “I believe in Paul’s vision of what I feel is an important show. It’s Paul bringing people up from the audience to talk with him onstage.

    “Seems like we’ve seen this before, right? But what Paul does is very different. He creates a new reality for each audience — a reality in which the funny and the profound mix. And miraculous things start to happen. The audience begins to really care about a stranger standing onstage telling Paul their story.”

    Mecurio also credits the set design and animation as hugely important components to the mood and welcoming flavor of the production. J.J. Sedelmaier (“Saturday Night Live’s” “TV Funhouse,” “Beavis and Butt-Head”) is the animation wizard and Jim Fenhagen (“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “The Today Show,” “Good Morning America”) is the set designer. Between them, they’ve won 33 Emmys.

    “Paul, Jim and Frank have been quite a team to play with, and it’s been as rewarding an experience as I could ever imagine,” Sedelmaier says in an email. “The idea of animation folded into a live performance — especially a live performance that was different each time — immediately intrigued me, but it was only after years of talking it all out that it gelled into reality. ALL of us wanted to make sure this wasn’t going to be a gratuitous aspect of the show and would be something that acted as a creative conduit that would feel natural and entertain as well.”

    He said WHAT?!’

    Clearly, Mecurio has no idea what he’s going to hear when he brings customers up onstage. His genuine curiosity and ability to relate to folks has proved successful for “Permission,” and he says he’s often as surprised as everyone else in the venue.

    “One guy told us that he broke up with his girlfriend because she got busted shoplifting from a CVS,” Mecurio says. “The thing is, he TAUGHT her to shoplift. He was angry because she wasn’t in some high-end place like Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom.”

    Mecurio laughs. The story still amuses him. “And we had a woman who told us that her first name was the name of the woman her father was having an affair with. Like, he was having an affair — and when his wife got pregnant, they named the baby after his mistress!”

    Mecurio, whose stage persona is relaxed, folksy and self-effacing, is a master at putting folks at ease, and he’s just as good at comedic riffing as he digs deeper and deeper into audience revelations.

    Given the nightly variations of content, Mecurio has to rely on instincts and what he calls “an internal clock” that not only keeps time but calibrates the evening’s momentum. At some point, he has to gauge the emotional peak of the narratives and decide when to segue into calculated narrative twists to bring the show to a close.

    “It’s all feel and comfort,” Mecurio says. “You can’t be on autopilot. In typical stand-up, you do your set and finish the set with THE joke. That’s exactly what ‘Permission to Speak’ ISN’T. For this show, it’s like juggling. You can’t be on autopilot. I want to reach a magical emotional peak, and the only way to do that is to listen to the room and pay attention.”

    If you go

    Who: Paul Mecurio

    What: “Permission to Speak”

    When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

    Where: The United Theatre, 5 Canal St., Westerly

    How much: $35

    For more information: (401) 388-3208, unitedtheatre.org, paulmecurio.com

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