OPEN MIC NIGHT Brings Weiss and Mounsey Back On Stage — Review
Upon entering the black box at Performance Space New York for Peter Mills Weiss & Julia Mounsey’s Open Mic Night, you’re greeted with gently pulsating lights and the faint sounds of house music, as if there’s a party going on without you in the next room. It’s fitting, for this piece by the avant-garde duo, presented by Mabou Mines and Performance Space New York for this year’s Under the Radar Festival, is a surprisingly heartfelt elegy for a place (a physical and a spiritual one, a “scene,” if you will) that’s fading away, that may no longer even exist.
For most of the piece, the harsh overhead fluorescent lights stay on, forcing the audience, sitting in risers on either side of the space, to stare at each other while Weiss and Mounsey perform on a runway between them. Mounsey sits at a small table in front of a laptop, playing music and sound effects that underscores a sort of stand-up set that Weiss performs. This is no passive theatre-going experience, though. He asks rapid fire questions of individual audience members, which I’m sure change from performance to performance, and, in a rather sweet portion of the show, brings attendees on stage to give a shout out to their best friend. Mounsey and Weiss both tell anecdotes about their time at an illegal, experimental performance venue. It’s experimental theatre about an experimental theatre.
Whether or not this is an homage to Life World, the defunct Brooklyn DIY space that Weiss and Mounsey were once a part of, is besides the point. The two collaborators are playing characters, versions of themselves perhaps, and part of what they’re interested in is performance. By breaking down the barrier between performer and audience, they simultaneously make us more comfortable with what’s going on and ratchet up the tension, for we don’t really know what they’ll ask or do next. It’s a balancing act they pull off supremely well. It also creates a community in that space each night, a community unknowingly gathered to lament the loss of community.
Having had the chance to see while you were partying at Soho Rep in 2021, I went into this piece with some mild apprehension. I loved while you were partying—it was like a nightmare I couldn’t stop thinking about and I mean that in the best way possible—but its swings between comedy and unsettling anger, the blurriness between what was real and what wasn’t, created a real sense of danger in the theatre. Here, that danger isn’t as present. The material is still slippery and Mounsey’s flat, affectless delivery keeps you guessing as to what’s going on beneath the surface, which is a hallmark of a first-rate actor. In her economy of words and actions, she’s captivating.
Weiss and Mounsey both refer to each other (or each other’s characters, I guess) as addicts. Addicted to what though? The answer comes in the piece’s final section, where Weiss refers to nostalgia and performance both as a kind of drug. Nostalgia “sands down the past” and turns it into “something you can hang on the wall.” Performance, he says, sands down a person to make them more palatable for the stage. If nostalgia’s a drug, Open Mic Night is a quick hit of it as they mourn a bygone place in time. In this era of reboots and sequels and remakes, culture is a breeding ground for nostalgia addicts. One quick scroll through any one of your social media feeds and it’s clear there’s an epidemic of performance addiction going around, too. In this way, Weiss and Mounsey are not only mourning the death of experimental theatre, but of culture as well.
This all happens in under an hour. They even take a break and give the audience a chance to buy a beer (sorry, I mean, a chance to make a donation and later acquire a beer) out of a cooler Mounsey wheels in. It’s an invitation to make yourself a part of what’s happening on stage, to see what happens when the audience is pushed to interact, to, in a word, experiment. It’s also a callback to the performance space they’ve been eulogizing, where they sold “over 10,000 beers” without a liquor license.
It’s their ability to explore tenderness without being sentimental that gives this piece its power. While audience members sip on beers, binders full of pictures taken at illegal performance venues from around the city are passed around during this time, too. Looking at these pictures, it made me nostalgic for an era I wasn’t even a part of. That’s one strong drug.
Open Mic Night runs through Thursday January 18th at Performance Space New York.