theater review

The Sharp-Edged Sword of while you were partying

From while you were partying, at Soho Rep. Photo: Photo: Julieta Cervantes

When comedians start flirting with the comedy-theater boundary, they kind of … dress up for it. When Hannah Gadsby does one of her monologues, she wears a suit so sharp it cuts. For Neal Brennan’s run at the Cherry Lane, he and his director Derek DelGaudio commissioned a sculpture to represent the joke writer’s inner self. A sculpture! So classy. Comedians come to the theater like they’re visiting somebody’s else’s church. But when drama folks slink over the line into comedyland, you see their eyes go wild. Something about the microphone gives them license for brain-melting bleakness. The lipstick goes on sloppy. The audience is in danger.

On the Soho Rep website, while you were partying is called “a story by Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss with Brian Fiddyment.” That’s enough for some of us to immediately clutch a stuffed animal for comfort. Mounsey and Weiss’s last fully produced show was the bone-chilling [50/50]: old school animation, made with the comedian and musician Mo Fry Pasic. That play — which is on my all-time top-ten list — was a pair of linked monologues: First Mounsey spoke carefully and deliberately about a sadistic personal project; then Pasic spoke (and sang) about being the unknowing target of Mounsey’s secret violence. Mounsey’s delivery in [50/50] was sloth-slow and grave. She fixed the audience with her intense regard before demonstrating her story on her body — pointing to her arm where she might press a burning cigarette or pulling out her own dental plate to show us a gap-filled rictus.

It is almost a relief to say that while you were partying is not quite as intense as that, though it still feels like sliding on wet grass into an electric fence. The new collaborator Fiddyment’s presence alleviates some of the pressure, even though he screams himself red and punches the walls so hard they shake. Did I mention it’s a comedy show? I mean, Mounsey says it’s a comedy show. There are jokes. There’s even a poop gag. Mounsey and Weiss make pieces about both cruelty and authenticity, so it’s only natural that they use comedy as their vehicle, given that you can say anything in this country if you claim you’re joking. Mounsey talks about a friend’s attempted suicide. Maybe it’s real, maybe it’s not. Cry-laugh emoji. She expresses her own rage and anxiety and physical distress. LOL.

Mounsey’s unsmiling magnetism drove [50/50], but here the group deliberately absents her from the piece even as it revolves around her. In the first section, she sits in a chair, her iPhone playing a spoken recording next to her. We never hear her speak live, though it’s her low voice on the phone. According to the monologue, during the pandemic Julia visited an old friend Brian, who had survived a suicide attempt. They didn’t talk about it; they played video games. When Brian made a specially modded avatar of Julia die again and again, Julia said horrible, abusive things to him. Brian then asked her to apologize by writing him a comedy sketch about his attempt to kill himself. “You’re a ‘writer,’ right?” The show we are watching is the result.

The show’s second part is the “sketch,” which consists of Fiddyment and Weiss reading from scripts at a table. They play Brian and Brian’s mother, cartoonish characters caught in a nightmare scenario. (Is Brian Fiddyment the Brian from the story? Is any of this okay to talk about?) The mother simultaneously supports and infantilizes Brian, coaxing him to take his bad jokes — “Who is this Rorschach guy and why did he draw all those pictures of my parents fighting?” — on the road. When he fails, he makes a mess in his pants, then throws a room-rattling tantrum … then ties a noose. In the third section, Fiddyment hooks up a television, which fills with a CGI version of Mounsey. He operates Julia’s image with a video game controller, while she hides somewhere in the building, murmuring directions through his headphones. As Fiddyment speaks the lines she’s feeding him, Mounsey indirectly confesses her own awful misery. Or at least it sounds like the real thing, but, again, this is comedy, and the concept of an actual Julia has grown slippery.

The stunning central portion, in which the stone-faced Weiss is absolutely knock-you-down hilarious, grinds comedy’s bones. It also (in about twenty minutes) tackles internet culture and, uh, men. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about what stand-ups can and can’t say, about whether they speak truth to power or operate as society’s sacred jesters or whatever. While you were partying holds up its mirror to that world and reflects an image of coddled adolescent narcissism, pathological self-destructiveness, and the willingness to burn everything down if people don’t clap. Brian will make the hackneyed got-’em-off-the-internet jokes when he wants and it will go well or he will hold his breath until he dies, you hear that Mom? Until he dies. The play’s title comes from a reddit meme, an image of a man with a katana next to the words “When you were partying, I studied the blade … And now that the world is on fire and the barbarians are at the gate, you have the audacity to come to me for help?” It’s that sulky dog-in-the-manger tone that suffuses maybe 90 or so percent of what guys talk about online.

The third act of while you were partying didn’t seem as perfectly honed to me, both a little long and a little rushed. Structurally, though, it’s ferociously clever: It turns the video-game-objectification conversation on its head, and it’s thrilling to see Mounsey turn a male gamer into a woman’s mouthpiece, to use the play’s mechanics to interrupt his tale of woe with a woman’s anguish. It seems to me that the shark-eyed confidence of the first two sections wavers, though. At the same time, my own confidence that I understood the show was also a little unsteady. This is the third Mounsey-Weiss horror-comedy project I’ve seen (a workshop of their Protec/Attac is up on YouTube), and so I assumed that I would be sophisticated about the way Mounsey uses herself and her “I” onstage. Autofiction, I nodded to myself wisely. I totally know the term for this stuff. But this is the third terrifying piece that has presented Julia as a person engaging in self-harm. “I feel so weak and impotent all the time,” her avatar says here. “Which makes me hateful. Which makes me dangerous.” I can see the artistic lineage at work: She and Weiss are working in the vein of performance artists who grapple with mental health like Kim Noble, or (with fewer bodily fluids) Spalding Gray. I see all that, and I’m impressed. In fact, I’m a fan. And still I spent the last 20 minutes of the show very scared for her and wondering if I should intervene. Does that sound like a fun night in the theater? Hey. I laughed.

While you were partying is at Soho Rep through December 12.

The Sharp-Edged Sword of while you were partying