The Writing On The Stall Review: 5 Ways this “bathroom graffiti musical” made me uncomfortable

Caitlin Cook has reportedly spent ten years researching graffiti in public bathrooms, and five years turning the graffiti into songs, which she now has put together for an hour-long show billed as “a one woman bathroom graffiti musical,” running at SoHo Playhouse through September 23.

The songs, which Cook sings accompanying herself on guitar backed by slides of the graffiti in the lyrics, are full of toilet humor – but that genre has to be redefined, in order to encompass much more than just vulgarity (although there’s plenty of that.) Her song “Conversations with Strangers,” for example, presents some clever, even surreal, graffiti exchanges, such as:

“Question everything”

 “Yo girl, on a scale of 1 to America, how free are you tonight?”
Underneath which somebody scrawled:
“Germany 1942”

(see the music video below)

Another song, “The Difference,” offers a hilarious contrast between the graffiti in women’s stalls and those in men’s stalls. The graffiti in women’s stalls are often supportive; 

“Girl, keep your head up
You are so much stronger
And more beautiful than you’re likely to believe”

The graffiti in men’s stalls are…dick pics. Many, many illustrations of penises, some quite imaginative.

Cook’s presentation of graffiti in song and slide show doesn’t readily fit any one genre: It’s musical theater, sort of, stand-up comedy, gross-out comedy, anthropology, art history, a jokey kind of feminism. I above all found the show deeply weird  – and that was before it swerved unexpectedly into a personal memoir of trauma. “The Writing on the Stall” made me uncomfortable at numerous times and in numerous ways. And that doesn’t even include the dick pics. 

  1. The show begins with Caitlin Cook pulling down her panties and sitting on the toilet, accompanied by a loud sound effect of her urinating
  2. Cook throws her panties to the audience, then does this twice more (She was wearing three sets of panties.)
  3. She makes self-deprecating jokes about being Jewish
  4. She’s big on audience participation. This includes her asking the audience:  Does anyone have a great pooping pants story?
  5. About forty minutes into the show, she tells us of a traumatic incident that occurred when she was 17 years old, for which she felt – and feels – responsible. This is an abrupt change in tone – in no way funny, although she does try to make a few jokes about it.  She also ties it into the rest of the show by saying that at the time she noticed a piece of graffiti in a bathroom that said: “Do what scares you (even if it’s everything).” She tells us this comforted her: “I built my life around this piece of graffiti… I took that advice, I mean I really took that advice. And I loved the girl I became.”

She turns this into a kind of philosophy, or at least a platitude:  “I think it’s always worth it to do things that scare you, to put yourself outside of your comfort zone. It’s like that old saying—it’s better to face your fears than fear your face.”

But this is confusing, not least because she tells us that, as a result of taking the advice from the graffiti, she became “pretty self-destructive… drinking too much. I was eating too much, and throwing it up.” 

It may be true that reading the graffiti in public restrooms helped her deal with her trauma, as she claims – that the scrawling on bathroom walls was more concretely useful to her, as she says specifically, than contemplating classical art by Monet or Botticelli. But tying together the toilet humor with the traumatic experience and its aftermath feels undermining of both.  It’s likely that Cook felt compelled to dramatize her experience, and I could see – and would see —  a second work of theater that focuses on it.

Not all the weirdness in “The Writing on the Stall” is off-putting. Cook tells us she has a Masters in art history from Oxford, and she wrote her thesis on bathroom graffiti – which explains the art history slides of graffiti that go back to prehistoric times. “It’s the oldest form of art,” she says. (She also wrote a paper on why penises are so small in Ancient Greek sculptures, which she explains at some length.)  She endorses a piece of graffiti wisdom she discovered in a bathroom wall: 

“Writing on toilet walls is neither for critical acclaim nor financial reward. It is the purest form of art.”

“The Purest Form of Art” is also a title of one of her other songs. “As an Oxford graduate with a perfect ass, I am here to tell you that [graffiti] is art,” she introduces it, weirdly.   

The Writing on the Wall
SoHo Playhouse through September 23
(Sept 6-9, 13-16, 20-23 at 9 p.m.)
Running time: One hour (preceded by a different opening act each night)
Tickets: $35
Written and performed by Caitlin Cook
Directed by A.J. Holmes
Creative consultants: Chase Brantley, Amanda Faye Martin, David Goldsmith

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