Party Foul

A post-pandemic play unravels fact and fiction

While You Were Partying, 2021. Performance view, Soho Rep, New York. Brian Fiddyment and Peter Mills Weiss. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO, the collaborators Julia Mounsey and Peter Mills Weiss (along with Mo Fry Pasic and Sophie Weisskoff) presented [50/50] Old School Animation at the Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theatre in New York. The show tapped into a sense of paralyzing apprehension—the overwhelming, awful feeling that something very bad was about to happen, and there was little we could do to stop it.

While You Were Partying marks the furious return of Mounsey and Mills Weiss, this time in collaboration with Brian Fiddyment (all three of whom also perform in the piece). The show, now at Soho Rep, is calibrated to meet us at the claustrophobic, animal place we’ve been in since early 2020, and is is a worthy successor to [50/50] Old School Animation, taking into account our radically changed world. Like that show, While You Were Partying is an exercise in how to set fire to a room and watch it burn.

From the loud, spiky music of Kimberly O’Loughlin’s sound design heard at the top of the play, signaling the punklike sensibility of what’s to come, to the ungodly, low-fi special effects of its final act, the triumervate of Mounsey, Mills Weiss, and Fiddyment weave together a frightening, horribly funny tapestry of dis-ease. In three dreamlike sequences, a woman (Mounsey) sits on stage, playing a recording of her relating a story of something that happened to her that she is too uncomfortable to tell a live audience; a man-child (Fiddyment) and his man-mother (Mills Weiss) engage in a role-playing game that drives one of them manically over the edge; and we’re given a creepy peek into the essence of this meta avatar near-future we appear to be blithely moving closer to every day. Throughout, the play’s ability to effectively traffic in the uncertain margins between what is “real” and what is “fiction” becomes positively chilling.

While You Were Partying, 2021. Performance view, Soho Rep, New York. Julia Mounsey. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.

All three performers acquit themselves well, but Fiddyment’s increasingly unhinged performance in the middle section of the play is truly remarkable. He gives himself over completely as his character twists and spins out of control, accidentally bloodying his knuckles at one point, and literally frothing at the mouth at another. It brought to mind accounts of John Malkovich’s now legendary 1987 turn in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, the standard-bearer for an actor going bonkers onstage. Oh yes, I thought watching Fiddyment, I’m familiar with those feelings. I’ve felt that way. I just didn’t know how to express it.

On the night I saw While You Were Partying, there were moments when I thought I could feel the entire audience’s collective pulse racing, and others when the tension was broken by wild, gulping laughter from people seated nearby, as if to say, “Can you believe what we’re watching?” When the show was over, after barely an hour, there was a sense that we all needed to catch our breath.

In her review of Gary Shteyngart’s new book, Our Country Friends, novelist Dana Spiotta wrote in the Times this week: “To write now is to write in the wake of 2020.” This same rule holds true for theater-making. It’s entirely possible that the sampling of other plays I’ve seen since the city’s return to live performance has not been broad enough but, on par, most of them have left me cold, as though I had witnessed the artificial reanimation of cryogenically frozen specimens: experiences that have seemed thuddingly irrelevant, relics of a bygone era.

Not so with While You Were Partying. The show isn’t for everyone. It’s messy and dangerous and definitely not intended for polite company. It constantly messes with us, often pushing well past the boundaries of good taste. But if theater audiences are going to put their physical well-being at calculated risk (even with proof-of-vaccination protocols in place), then While You Were Partying at least meets what should be the absolute prerequisite for all live performance right now: It has to matter.

While You Were Partying runs at Soho Rep in New York through December 12 and will livestream on Twitch on November 21.