The Ex-Boyfriend Yardsale
Written and Performed by: Haley McGee
Directed by: Mitchell Cushman
Presented by: the red light district/Outside the March
When Canadian playwright and performer Haley McGee relocates to London, England, with thousands of dollars of credit card debt, her first thought is to sell her body. After all, she reasons, she’s a young woman who must have some real market value. Standing on stage in androgynous-looking underwear, McGee attempts to rigorously appraise her physical worth until the exercise becomes too horrifyingly demeaning and she’s struck by a better idea – she’ll think about the value of her heart.
The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, which opened at the Theatre Centre on Tuesday night, might be the most buzzed-about play at Toronto’s Progress Festival. McGee’s solo show explores romance in an age that isn’t just obsessed with dollar value, but the potential for that value to be further distilled as an algorithm or code. Information is at our fingertips these days; we feel capable of understanding anything. So, why can’t we plug our relationships into a formula that will compute exactly what they’re worth?
In its frenetic – though often sophisticated – attempt to turn feelings into figures, the play shows the impossibility of ever doing that kind of math. McGee’s reckless and impassioned effort to make sense of her past loves, and express that sense in numbers, is a gloriously misguided pursuit that, paradoxically, captures love’s enduring incalculability.
McGee decides to sell gifts from various ex-boyfriends to pay back the debt: a guitar, a vintage typewriter, a bicycle, a coffee pot. But the problem is: What is each worth? With the help of mathematician Melanie Phillips, McGee sets out to devise a formula that can measure actual worth against sentimental value. First come the expected questions about the price of the gift and its subsequent depreciation. But then there are a range of emotional considerations: How long did the relationship last? How good was the sex? What was the ratio of time spent laughing to time spent fighting? Who broke up with whom?
What emerges is a portrait of a young woman falling in and out of love over the course of 15-odd years, and her self-conscious struggle to see how each experience shaped her. We get beautiful, pointed anecdotes rendered simply and honestly. McGee’s writing is so naturally specific and emotionally textured that it can feel improvised, as though she’s pouring out her heart to a best friend. We learn about the man she fell in love with straight out of theatre school; entangled on the banks of the Ottanabee river (they were working on the same regional theatre show) they stared into each other’s eyes and declared “We’re the same! We’re the same!” We learn about her first taste of fear, of betrayal, and of unrequited love. It turns out the man she most adored broke her heart by claiming their relationship wasn’t “real.”
In preparation for the play, McGee interviewed a few of her exes, and these interviews are incorporated into the action. We witness how differently people can be affected by the same experience. Love can be wildly unbalanced and unjust; there’s no equilibrium in life between what you want and what you get.
Designer Anna Reid has created a playful set where scrolls of calculations drop from the rafters, and the back wall serves as whiteboard for McGee’s increasingly complex mathematics. Director Mitchell Cushman clearly understands McGee’s raw power as a performer and lets nothing upstage her. She’s mesmerizing to watch and so emotionally exposed it can feel as though a layer of her skin is missing. One of the most beautiful sequences has McGee reading from her teenage diary, an excerpt relaying the discovery that a former boyfriend is dating someone new. “I’m not a bad person,” she says tearfully, then wishes him a dramatically gruesome death.
When each item is finally appraised, McGee realizes that there must be a trump factor to the closing price: Did the relationship contain a moment of unspeakable bliss? Ultimately, love is unquantifiable and this beautiful, often heartbreaking play captures that to full effect.
The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale continues at the Theatre Centre until Feb. 11