Real Feels: “This Is Going to Hurt” at UCB

Tears don’t come easy for me in New York City. The city seems designed to keep people too busy to wallow. There’s always a concert or a friend’s reading to attend, and most of my emotional energy gets used up by regular life tasks like going to the post office, which in New York transforms into a Lord of the Rings-style quest requiring strategic planning, several mules, a gold cup to bargain with and at least three nights’ journey. Before I lived here, I was basically a pot burbling with Fiona Apple lyrics and insecurities and hopes just waiting to be crushed, always on the verge of spilling over. Then the city came along and plunked a heavy cast-iron lid on top.

 
This Is Going to Hurt

 
It’s nice that my eye makeup stays put on the streets of Manhattan, but overall I’m not sure a tearless existence is such a good thing. And I’m even more doubtful after seeing “This Is Going to Hurt,” a smart, funny and surprisingly affecting sketch show running at the Upright Citizens Brigade.

Like the best superheroes, writers and performers Glenn Boozan and Karin Hammerberg have a killer origin story: six months ago, they decided to start emailing each other every time they cried. Their project gave birth to “This Is Going to Hurt.” At the top of the show, the women offer a rundown of all the tear-inciting events they recorded, copied and pasted into a Word document projected onto the stage.

Some provocations are easy to predict: a breakup, triumphant YouTube videos, drinking red wine while reading a book about cancer. Others are more idiosyncratic. Boozan recalls tearing up when her friends kindly answered some questions she had about Spiderman; Hammerberg got misty when she spotted a man in a security uniform on the subway studying for the FDNY firefighter exam.

The highlights reel establishes a warm relationship between the performers and the audience and sets the tone for the sketches to come. From the outset, it’s clear that Boozan and Hammerberg are people who feel things strongly and unapologetically—all while maintaining a self-deprecating awareness of the moments when emotions verge into the ridiculous.

The sketches that follow feature people experiencing big, overpowering, socially inappropriate feelings. In the first skit, two disaffected morticians complain about how boring it is to do old people’s hair and makeup all the time. Then they open a body bag to discover a pretty teenage car crash victim. They know it’s wrong to be excited to curl her hair, but there’s no containing their exuberance. “We should do some color on her eyes ‘cause she’s young and fun!” Boozan exclaims, before widening her eyes in horror and clapping her hands over her mouth.

Other characters are embarrassed about the impropriety of their behavior, but for the wrong reasons. Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, is more concerned about his eating habits than his victims. “Well, that’s embarrassing,” Hammerberg-as-Dahmer murmurs after hearing that he’s being charged with 17 counts of murder and cannibalism. “That’s a lot of food.”

Most of the sketches, however, are about women acting out of turn. In one skit, a dutiful politician’s wife has a feminist awakening during her husband’s public apology. “Oh my god, you’re a piece of shit!” she bursts out, dropping the stoic-soldier routine. “I was just going to stand there. I thought your political career was more important than how I treated myself as a human being!” She leaves the stage entirely and starts pacing around in the audience section as the reality of her choices sinks in. “What was I thinking? I own so many blazers!”

As Boozan and Hammerberg tease the comedy from their characters’ attempts to repress their passions, it becomes clear that the show is in part a critique of the shame and fear that many people experience when forced to confront their own feelings. Of course it’s a good thing that healthy types have the coping mechanisms in place to power down their emotions when necessary. I wouldn’t want my surgeon to start weeping about a rift with his brother while I’m on the operating table. But too often, we encourage each other to make enemies of our feelings, as if anything other than Doris Day-cheerfulness is a show of impotence. Crying in particular is associated with weakness, which I’m sure has something to do with the fact that women tend to cry more than men. If women do it, it must be embarrassing, right?

The show becomes even more daring in the next act. Boozan and Hammerberg emerge again in their own personas to warn the audience that what they’re about to do might make people uncomfortable, then proceed to mine the saddest times in their lives for laughs.

For the sake of preserving the intimacy and strangeness of the performance, as well as the performers’ privacy, I won’t go into the details of their stories here. But Boozan and Hammerberg inject a radical vulnerability into the show, exposing the most wounded, tender parts of themselves to a hushed audience and then slinging on some oversized neckties to perform a late-night-style comedy routine about the worst things that have happened to them. They shuffle the audience from tears to laughter, which in the wrong hands could feel manipulative but instead comes across as the theater equivalent of a trust fall. They dare us to respond to their stories and to care for them, and—at least in the performance I saw—the audience comes through.

Since I saw “This Is Going to Hurt” last week, I have cried three times. First I cried reading an Ask Polly advice column during this part where she describes part of an episode of Project Runway really poetically, to show how people can connect with each other when they’re being open and vulnerable and kind. (You should read it.)

Then I teared up again while I was chopping brussels sprouts in the kitchen and talking to my roommate Luke about our parents’ mortality—just your usual light chit-chat—and I told him that I was especially scared about them getting sick because I was an only child.

“Not to be cheesy,” he said, “but you know there are people who love you and would help you.” Cue the waterworks.

And then I cried again at a concert on Friday, listening to an Indian-fusion chamber music ensemble play lullabies and songs inspired by love poems like this one: “Now is the time, dear lover / the moon has risen / and my husband is not in town.”

For now, at least, it seems the New York cast-iron feelings lid has been removed. This significantly ups the chances that I’ll be found absurdly sniffling over some slumped-over, rotting jack-o-lantern on the sidewalk sometime soon. But luckily there’s a Tumblr that tells all the weeping willows of New York the best department stores and Best Buys to duck into when you need a good cry. Anyway, even if I get embarrassed from time to time it’s a relief to feel like myself again. Dry eyes are well and good for those who naturally tend toward the Dowager Countess end of the spectrum, but a born leaky faucet shouldn’t let herself be turned off. I wonder what I will cry about tomorrow.

 

Photos by Melissa Gomez