Review: The Writing on the Stall Sings the Song of Bathroom Graffiti

Caitlin Cook’s solo musical is now at the Soho Playhouse.

A woman sits on the toilet, strumming a guitar.
Caitlin Cook wrote and stars in The Writing on the Stall, directed by A.J. Holmes, at the Soho Playhouse.
(© Arin Sang-Urai)

Bathroom graffiti is a dying art in the age of the smartphone, when every defecation is an excuse to scroll through Instagram for 10 minutes. Why read about the insecurities and rage of those who shat before you when the Internet offers the same thing on a grand scale? But if we take time to look up from our screens, we might actually find something profound. Caitlin Cook believes this so much that she has written a whole show around bathroom graffiti, turning the pithy nuggets of wisdom scrawled on the stall door into song lyrics.

The Writing on the Stall is the kind of delightfully irreverent, gleefully vulgar, slyly intellectual show that might have once been a highlight of the New York Fringe Festival (RIP). Even before it begins, photos of bathroom graffiti are projected on the upstage wall, with selections of sage advice (“Don’t drink and drive. Take acid and teleport”) and site-specific poetry (“A fart is the lonesome cry of an imprisoned turd”).

To further lubricate our experience, Cook has invited a series of standup comedians to warm-up the crowd. Jo Firestone opened the night I attended. Cute as a button but with a persistent undercurrent of sadness in her voice, she’s like a frowny teddy bear brought to life.

A woman plays her guitar in front of a large drawing of a penis cowboy.
Caitlin Cook wrote and stars in The Writing on the Stall, directed by A.J. Holmes, at the Soho Playhouse.
(© Arin Sang-Urai)

The main event opens with Cook seated on her porcelain throne accompanied by a rude sound cue. She sings about encouraging quotes written in permanent marker (and less encouraging abuse), bathroom stall confessions, and the proliferation of penis hieroglyphics in the men’s room. All the songs have a vaguely folksy quality, reinforced by Cook’s singular stage presence. Armed with an acoustic guitar and a comfortingly average voice, she’s the Joan Baez of the crapper, inspired to song by what she considers “the purest form of art.”

And we can take her word for it, as she studied art history at Oxford. Cook offers a summary of her paper on Hellenistic sculpture, which she has retitled for our benefit: “Why dem dicks so small?”

There are other digressions about her international travels and a very painful personal tragedy that occurred while she was in high school. Cook seems to want to deepen her subject matter, and while the revelation of this incident certainly shifts the mood in the room, its relationship to bathroom graffiti is tenuous at best. It would likely work better as the subject of an entirely separate show.

But under the assured direction of A.J. Holmes (who gave a master class in offbeat musical confession in 2021’s Yeah, But Not Right Now), Cook proves that this collision of standup comedy and song (do we still call it cabaret?) is something she can do well. I suspect the form will stick to her like an errant piece of toilet paper affixed to your shoe.


Featured In This Story

The Writing on the Stall

Final performance: September 23, 2023