Created by Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss, with Brian Fiddyment
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 12/12/21
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street
(L-R) Brian Fiddyment and Peter Mills Weiss in while you were partying. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
BOTTOM LINE: while you were partying bills itself as a comedy, but not everyone will be in on the joke.
Ran Xia: So as you know, I had a visceral, and quite negative, reaction to this piece. And beyond my initial gut response, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. The piece, as described, “hijacks the forms of confessional monologue, standup, and sketch comedy,” except I was not moved by the sincerity that I associate with a confessional monologue, nor did I feel the personal connection a standup comedian often achieves, nor did I find it funny.
Dan Dinero: Yeah, your initial comments had me quite curious. I knew you were very much looking forward to seeing Soho Rep’s first outing since theater reopened, and so I was a bit surprised to hear about your reaction. You definitely aren’t someone who “doesn’t know what to make of” weird, experimental performance. I remember my first question to you was “okay, so what actually happened on the stage?” Because I feel like, when trying to puzzle out my reactions about something, I always try to go back to description.
RX: Sure. So the piece was developed by three people—Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss (who have collaborated on other pieces before), along with Brian Fiddyment (who is new to this piece). It begins with Julia coming on stage to play a confessional monologue from her phone—she says (via the phone recording) that she has found that every time she tells the story, it changes, so she thought a private recording would be the best solution. In this recording, she tells a story of visiting her childhood friend Brian after he attempted suicide. During the visit, Brian shows her various “mods” (modifications) he’s made to a Super Mario game, including one where he re-made the Mario character as Julia. And then he proceeds to keep making this “Julia” die, over and over. Julia gets upset, says hurtful things, and then later apologizes by offering to “make something” for Brian. So he asks her to write a “comedy show” about his suicide attempt.
The next part is a reading of that show (we are told), in which Brian Fiddyment plays a very agitated Brian, and Peter Mills Weiss is a very stoic, almost emotionless, version of Brian’s mother. The two read from scripts (because it’s a draft), and in this scene, the two sort of “develop” a comedy show of their own. Brian gets increasingly upset, throwing bigger and bigger tantrums, at one point even shitting himself and then grabbing his own feces and flinging it on the floor.
DD: When I got to this part of your description, I was like “wait, what?”
RX: Right? So this part ends with Brian (the character) killing himself. But the piece continues. A television is brought out, upon which there is an avatar of Julia, which Brian (the actor) manipulates—he makes the eyes and mouth open and close—as he speaks aloud words that (we are told) Julia is feeding him through headphones. Julia (via Brian) tells us about some pretty intense issues of her own, explains the title (it’s based on a meme), and ends by admitting to her own anger.
DD: Your description was quite thorough (the above is somewhat abbreviated), but I still had trouble picturing this piece—especially the second and third parts. Once it opened, I read some other reviews—which didn’t exactly help me figure out what happened, but were significantly more positive than you were. So I decided to watch the free live stream (the show had two of these, in conjunction with Soho Rep’s 99-cent Sunday performances).
RX: So what did you think?
DD: Well, I should start by saying that it’s very clear that this piece will have a much stronger emotional effect live in the theatre than it will via the remove of the web. I wasn’t a big fan of all of the streamed theatre that happened during the pandemic; it only confirmed for me that theatre is meant to be experienced live. I decided to watch this via the web mostly so that we could have a dialogue about it much sooner than if we waited for me to squeeze a live performance into my schedule, and also because I figured a whole lot of people might choose to watch the live stream, and so I could speak to that version of this piece. So yeah—I’m sure fans of the show will tell me “oh, but you should really have seen it live,” and in some sense, they’re right.
That said, I feel like I can still speak to what I think the show might be trying to do. And you really got at some of this in your initial emails to me. For one thing, as you wrote, “the line between truth and fiction seems deliberately blurry.” Absolutely. Is the Brian we see the same Brian that Julia visited? Or did Julia rename her childhood friend “Brian” because that’s the name of the guy who was going to play him? Are Julia’s confessions real, or heightened, or complete bullshit?
RX: Yeah—I feel like this type of uncertainty can be exciting, but here, it just felt irresponsible. Like, if any of this is real, these folks all need professional help ASAP.
DD: But more than this “what’s real in this age of media manipulation” theme, the title really unlocks the piece for me. It comes from a meme, one that I know we both were unfamiliar with before this show. So what do we make of this meme? Is it a sincere plea by a straight white dude wasting away in his mom’s basement? Is it a satirical jab poking fun at (or even maligning) this same dude and his “incel” culture? Or is it just trolling—an attempt to rile up both of these viewpoints, just for LOLZ?
I feel like the meme is all of these things, and I’m thinking this piece is kind of attempting the same thing. In other words, while you were partying is essentially a dramatized version of this meme.
RX: Okay. Hmmm. So I definitely have thoughts, but before I go, where do you come down on all this?
DD: Well, it didn’t really disturb me the way I know it did you. I’m into the idea of exploring this kind of “incel” character—I’m just not sure this piece told me anything I didn’t already know. I felt like it was just giving us the stereotypical version of this guy, rather than a nuanced portrait. And I get that this may be the point—Fiddyment is giving an intense, over-the-top performance, and that’s something many critics seem to respond to. And hey—I’m a musical theatre geek, so I’m here for over-the-top. But here, it just felt like it was a bit “how big can we go” solely for the sake of going big.
RX: Yes, exactly. The anger of Fiddyment’s character was expressed in such a way that it felt more like a childish tantrum rather than an explorative force. And then there was that poop moment…
DD: Yeah. I feel like those are both part of the same thing—showing us how Brian is both infantilizing himself, and being infantilized by his mother (she makes him take his poop out and show it to the audience). So there’s this whole “incels haven’t grown up” theme. But it all felt a bit simplistic to me. Not that I need the show to be a deep intellectual dive into incel culture or anything. But I guess—show me something beyond broad stereotype?
RX: I just felt like the majority of the piece consists of a white male character expressing his aggression without any tangible context or resolution. The piece claims “to create a bombastic, frightening, and funny exploration of impotence, anger, and aggression,” but I only felt trapped in a bizarre therapy session. And here’s the bottom line: I don’t need to be yelled at by a white man—not for any reason, in any context, particularly not in a theatre. So for the entire hour of the show, I felt trapped, deceived, violated even.
DD: Yeah, this was the part of your initial take that most caught my attention. I didn’t really feel yelled at (although of course this could have to do with the remove of watching it at home), but you clearly did, and I think that’s something really important to acknowledge. It definitely didn’t escape me that both the people making this show, and the folks fawning all over it, are more or less all white. I actually think whiteness is a major element to this show, and one that doesn’t really seem to be acknowledged. It’s sort of surprising, since one of the last things I saw at the Soho Rep was Fairview, where all the white-identifying people in the audience were told to get on stage so the non-white people could look at them.
RX: By the end, I was also angered by the final prayer: “I feel the most pain. No one, in the entire world, feels more pain than me. No one has ever felt more pain than I have felt. Ever. Ever.”
DD: Just to jump in—these are supposedly Julia’s “words,” but we hear them spoken by Brian (the actor).
RX: Right. And maybe it’s meant to be satirical, a response to the meme of the man who thinks way too highly of himself. But to me, this reads as both tone deaf and self-victimizing. I mean, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic, where there is trauma everywhere we look. So these final words left a strange taste in my mouth.
DD: I know what you mean. I guess one could argue it’s all a “comment on” the self-absorbed millennial, but to me, the piece never really escaped that trap. Some critics have compared while you were partying to the work of monologists like Spalding Gray. And to me, the difference is that with Gray’s work, or indeed with any good memoir or autobiography, I feel “brought in.” Here, I felt a bit of a remove. Like, Julia complains at the beginning about how sad her life is because she had to move in with her parents during the pandemic. And I was like “so what? As you admit, they live close to the city, rather than—I don’t know—on the other side of the world. And now you have a piece at the Soho Rep. You’re lucky enough to be making a career at what you love. So…why should I feel bad for you again?”
Was there anything you liked about this piece?
RX: The design. Kate McGee’s lighting is simple and effective, with choices emphasizing the emotions of the performance without distracting. There are moments during the show when the audience was lit, which make the space expand and shrink organically. And the sound design (by Michael Hernandez and Kimberly O’Loughlin) along with Matt Romein’s video design, make the production feel sleek with impeccable timing. How about you?
DD: Since I was watching at home, I couldn’t get much of the lighting shifts you saw. And I’ll even add—the stream I saw got interrupted a few times at the beginning, which was somewhat frustrating. To be honest, my favorite part was the series of dumb jokes Brian goes through as he develops his “comedy show.” I love a good dumb joke, and Brian delivers a bunch.
RX: Interesting how your favorite part was the part that was the least original.
DD: Right? I guess overall, I feel a bit “meh” about the whole thing. The critical reception definitely feels a bit too “Emperor’s New Clothes” for me, in the same way I feel with Slave Play. And that’s another piece that everyone else (or at least all the critics) seemed to love, and we both didn’t, albeit for different reasons. How about you? Any last words?
RX: I’ll just say that for the whole show, I never felt like I was “in on the joke.” And I guess I’m still not. But I also don’t think I want to be.
(while you were partying plays at Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, through December 12, 2021. The running time is 55 minutes with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 (through November 28); Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 (December 1-12). No performance November 25. Tickets are $35. All tickets on November 14 and 21 are 99 cents and are only available the day of, at the door. Those same two performances will also stream live on Twitch @lesslesslessless. Rush tickets ($30 general, $20 student) are available for sold-out performances. For tickets and more information visit sohorep.org or call 646.586.8982.)
while you were partying is created by Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss, with Brian Fiddyment. Set Design by dots. Lighting Design by Kate McGee. Sound Design by Michael Hernandez and Kimberly O’Loughlin. Video Design by Matt Romein. Technical Director is Steven Brenman. Stage Manager is Keenan Hurley.
The cast is Julia Mounsey, Peter Mills Weiss, and Brian Fiddyment.