while you were partying is a bare-knuckled punch to the face. The production’s ingredients are simple: gray folding table, iPhone voice memo, plastic water bottle, harsh down light. The play is anything but—a tricky triptych of trauma and rage, delivered with a dark chuckle.
In the play’s first section, Julia (Julia Mounsey) strolls in, takes a seat next to the folding table, places her iPhone underneath a microphone, and presses play. Her disembodied, studiedly neutral voice tells us the story of the angriest she’s ever gotten.
Meanwhile, Julia stares at us. We watch her squirm as she listens to herself speak; we watch her while she watches us watch her squirm.
For this show, Soho Rep., an already tiny downtown theater, has been made claustrophobically small—the risers extend out into the theater’s typical stage so that the playing space is only a few yards deep. Coupled with Kate McGee’s unsparingly cool lighting design, which frequently lights the audience, it feels like we are under the microscope almost as much as Julia.
Julia’s voice tells us about Brian, a distant childhood friend who has recently attempted to commit suicide. “It would be great if you could spend some time with him while you’re home,” her dad tells her. Julia visits Brian in his parents’ basement, drinking Heinekens while he plays Super Mario 64.
The show’s impish sense of humor pokes its head out as Julia describes the videogame: “You play as Mario, who is a free-spirited Italian plumber, and you have to acquire stars. When you have enough Stars, you fight Bowser, who is a dragon crossed with a turtle.”
Quickly, things spiral out of Julia’s control. Brian has modified his video game and inserted a Julia avatar into the game, whom he proceeds to kill, again and again. Julia feels violated and has an out of body experience—watching herself throw her beer at her depressed “friend,” calling him a loser and a waste of space, running away. Later, she feels bad for how she reacted and, to make it up to Brian, agrees to his request that she write a comedy show about his suicide attempt.
Julia leaves the stage, the house lights go out, and we’re plunged into Part 2: her work-in-progress comedy show. Brian (a volcanic Brian Fiddyment) and Mother (a ruthlessly deadpan Peter Mills Weiss) sit down at the gray folding table, scripts in hand, and begin to act out Julia’s sketch. Brian is a 30-something manchild, perpetually on the edge of a panic attack. Mother is a cool tyrant, toying with her son as she forces him to participate in an increasingly bizarre series of skits.
Weiss twists a flat affect into a sharp tool, punctuated by unpredictable and jarring bangs on the folding table. Part of the shock of his performance is the stark contrast of his character with his appearance—a masculine presenting performer dressed head to toe in black, with big glasses and a huge red beard. He’s a gifted dominatrix.
In the comedy sketch, actions are often described rather than performed, evoking actions as disparate as baking cinnamon rolls and traveling on road trips while remaining seated at the table:
I’m making cinnamon rolls.
Oh, god. I can smell them!
Yes, they’re cooking inside of the oven.
Oh, they smell so fucking goddamn good.
Oh my fucking goodness the cinnamon rolls are ready.
I’m taking them out of the oven.
I dropped one on the floor.
No! Mom! You’re gonna make a mess!
I’ve already made a mess.
NO MOM, DON’T DO IT!
There’s icing all over the floor.
OH NO NO NO!!!!
I’m gonna clean it up.
As Brian, Fiddyment is a one-man car crash, pushing himself to frankly terrifying levels of anger over the course of the evening. He literally turns red with rage, throwing tantrums that feel like performance art as he throws his body into the walls of the theater.
It all builds, inexorably, to Brian’s suicide attempt, the one moment in the show where a bit of tenderness creeps into the proceedings. Things get quiet. We take a breath. Mother has Brian take off his glasses. An agonizingly slow count to three. For such a chilly performance, I was surprised to find myself choking up.
The attempt (described, not seen) is handled quietly and quickly—too quickly—so that the transition into the third part of the show feels rushed. (My seatmate missed what had happened entirely.) I won’t spoil part three here, but it puts an appropriately ugly ribbon on the evening, while lacking some of the clarity of the storytelling in earlier sections.
This is a strange, alienating show. A key plot development hinges on a killer poop joke. What does it all add up to? Frankly, I’m not sure. Self-control is a fragile thing, and it’s upsetting to see how easily we can lose ourselves to anger, trauma, and mental illness. Like in their excellent [50/50] old school animation, part of the 2019 Under the Radar Festival, Weiss and Mounsey use autofiction to get under our skin, coupling versions of themselves with complicated framing devices to make us question whether what we see on stage is “real” or performance. They are a bracingly original team, combining an unflinching look at the darkest sides of humanity with bare-bones theatrical tools.
I was troubled leaving the theater. After all—the boogeymen you can see with the lights on are the scariest.