Review: While You Were Partying Attempts a Comedy About Suicide
Julia Mounsey, Peter Mills Weiss, and Brian Fiddyment present a dark hour of theater at Soho Rep.
At the beginning of Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss's while you were partying [sic], Mounsey enters the empty stage of Soho Rep, places an iPhone under a microphone, and hits play. What follows is a recorded story about Brian, a high school friend who attempted suicide, and whom she visited in his mother's basement (where he lives) last year after the pandemic forced her to move back with her own parents. This awkward reunion ended with him showing Julia a video game he had modified to include an animated version of her (a 21st-century nod to Phantom and his Christine sex robot) and with her throwing beer in his face. Out of guilt, Julia later promised to write Brian a funny sketch about his attempted suicide — at his request. That sketch constitutes the remainder of while you were partying, a horror show for anxious millennials that has been billed as a comedy.
It's impossible to know how much of Julia's story is real: Weiss and Mounsey engaged in similarly gruesome autofiction for their previous collaboration, [50/50] old school animation. We do know, however, that the title of this play comes from an Internet meme which seems to convey the dark fantasy of a basement-dweller like Brian, imagining a future in which his hours spent obsessing over Bitcoin and Katana swords (and not being invited to the party) actually constitute a good investment.
The sketch itself is presented as a reading, with Brian (Brian Fiddyment, who is also credited as a creator) and his mother (Peter Mills Weiss) seated at a table. Calm, controlled, and speaking directly into the microphone, Weiss plays Brian's mother like a sadistic stage director (it is telling that none is credited here). Watching their interaction feels like witnessing a highly idiosyncratic BDSM session involving hypnotism, humiliation, and ASMR. Childlike and highly excitable, the 30-year-old Brian follows his mother's every command until the scene devolves into an epic meltdown.
The night I attended, Fiddyment screamed so hard, his face turned purple. Clouds of dust puffed from behind the walls of the theater as he repeatedly slammed into them. Foam pooled in the corners of his mouth; and by the end of this tantrum, one of his knuckles bled. The point — that repeated humiliation can drive an already unstable man to rage and suicide -- is underlined in crimson, but I suspect it could have been conveyed just as well without the actor injuring himself.
The minimal design scheme (bare set by Kimie Nishikawa, stark lighting by Kate McGee, brutally simple sound by Kimberly O'Loughlin) has one striking design feature in a creepy video game version of Julia designed by Matt Romein. It is used in a 64-bit puppet show in which Julia (as manipulated by Brian) makes the rawest confessions of the evening. Despite the uncanny nature of the avatar — its severe little mouth and psychotically blinking eyes -- few people laugh.
And that certainly has to do with the heavy subject matter addressed in while you were partying, which is not some hand-wringing examination of how toxic men like Brian are created. Rather, it delves into our disdain and exposes it for self-loathing. It entertains the suspicion among many in our bloated creative class that an expensive university education wasn't actually a better investment than swords and Bitcoin. And it considers how our very American notions of merit and free will can be easily humbled by fate, say, in the form of a pandemic. That's a story worth telling — but I still don't think an actor needs to bleed in order to get there.