Review: "Before The Drugs Kick In" May Alter Your Perception

Before The Drugs Kick In

Written and directed by Mike Lemme

Presented by Mike Lemme at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

December 8-22, 2023

Maria DeCotis. Photo by Arin Sang-urai.
Why should a person be defined by her lowest, most vulnerable point? Why should such a point dictate the course of her life? Such questions pervade comedian and playwright Mike Lemme's Before The Drugs Kick In, currently making its New York debut in the fittingly intimate space of UNDER St. Marks. Before The Drugs Kick In made its world premiere at the 2023 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, collecting not only critical praise but also nominations for the BBC Writersroom Popcorn Award for Best New Writing and the Mental Health Foundation Fringe Award. Inspired by personal experience, Before The Drugs Kick In invites us inside the mind of one woman for a riveting, empathetic, and darkly funny exploration of mental health and its (mis)treatments and stigmas, especially where women are concerned; the oppressiveness and isolation of the suburbs; and what Betty Friedan termed the feminine mystique: the expectation that women should be happy with a combination of heteronormative marriage and domestic and reproductive labor.

The hour-long play takes the form of a stand-up set by a woman named Lynn T. Walsh (Maria DeCotis). The stage on which she performs is bare except for a single chair, and, clad in head-to-toe black, with a cigarette perched behind her ear, she cuts a rather archetypal figure as a stand-up comic. It takes almost no time, however, for Walsh to throw the play's first curveball, a clear signal that what is to come will in fact be far from typical. As with our discussion of the 2022 production of Lemme's Bathroom of a Bar on Bleecker, it seems best to let the audience discover the specific revelations nested within Before The Drugs Kick In for themselves–including who the spectators are to Walsh herself. Suffice it to say that Walsh is using stand-up to process the experience and ongoing ramifications of a pivotal moment in her life that she calls a mistake, and that her particular use of the artform includes some unexpected layers. The stand-up form also allows Walsh to make some trenchant contrasts between her treatment–by both professionals and family–as a woman who had a mental health crisis and, say, a successful middle-aged male comedian who publicly dated an underage woman. Significant to the play's explorations is not only the aftermath of the crisis but also the causes, particularly suburban solitude and enervation (in her case, in the 1990s, when for many, she observes, maternity leave still meant leaving one's job). Walsh points out, for example–quite accurately, in our experience–that something like taking a walk around the neighborhood tends to be looked at askance in the suburbs, where the accepted path is from house to car and vice versa and the typical points of interaction with the neighbors are within the bounds of one's own driveway or from behind the glass of a picture window.
Maria DeCotis and Mike Lemme. Photo by Arin Sang-urai.
DeCotis, a multidisciplinary artist who also performs her own stand-up, delivers a positively spellbinding turn. She plays with the rhythms of live comedy, stretching some silences, for instance, and letting the audience sit with them, or pausing to gaze intently at something or someone offstage, and landing punchlines as artfully as she suggests both deep wells of pain and a determination to find ways to carry on. The production also includes a short post-show talkback with Lemme and DeCotis, which, on the day that we attended, gave some insight into the play's origins, development, aims, and reception (including by audiences of different types and on different continents). Grounding an unconventional concept in quotidian authenticity, Before The Drugs Kick In conjures a potent piece of theater.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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