Stage Door Review

The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale

Monday, October 24, 2022

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by Haley McGee, directed by Mitchell Cushman

Soulpepper Theatre Company with Outside the March & the red light district, Young Centre, Toronto

October 21-November 6, 2022

“The formula to determine the cost of love”

Haley McGee returns to Toronto with her hit solo show The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale. It had a sold-out run in Toronto in 2019 after its world premiere in London, UK, in November 2018. So if you missed Yard Sale in 2019, you’d better see it now.

The show begins before McGee sets foot on stage when the audience is invited to look at eight objects displayed on white plinths as if they were part of an avant-garde art exhibit. They are diamond bracelet, a ukulele, a music-box, a T-shirt, a typewriter, a backpack, a specially mixed CD and a bicycle. The audience is invited to write down their estimates of what each piece is worth. At the end of the play they can compare what they first thought versus what they think after McGee has told the story of each item. The change is radical.

Once the stage is clear, McGee enters and tells us that the genesis of the show arose when she found herself in England and $10,000 in debt. In considering what to do McGee knows that some women in London might be able to charge $500 or even $1000 for sex. Yet, even if she thought there might be a market for her and even if she considered what extra requests such a price might entail, she realized that she would never want to engage in loveless sex that many times to pay off her debt.

All that she has that is worth anything are presents from her eight ex-boyfriends – the eight objects the audience had earlier assessed. Why not have a yard sale and see how much that would bring in? The question, though, is how much an object is really worth considering the associations it has. In fine art provenance is a standard factor in determining the value of an object. Is one of McGee’s objects worth more because its owner’s mother may have known Joni Mitchell?

The question of trying literally to calculate sentimental value, i.e., apply logic to a feeling that defies logic, is the theme McGee pursues for 100 minutes. You might think there is not enough material to support a show for such a length of time. If so, you simply haven’t looked at the question in the obsessively detailed way McGee has, to find causes that increase or decrease the “value” of an object. If the gift was given for an occasion, that does not increase its value. If was not given for an occasion, it does. If McGee wanted the object but never told her ex she did, the object increases in value. If she wanted the object but had to tell the ex before he gave it to her, the value is lower. And what was the price of the gift as a percentage of the monthly income of the giver?

There are unbelievably more factors in evaluating the “cost of love” than the average audience member could even imagine. One basis for the play’s humour is Haley’s quixotic attempt to apply mathematical means to judging emotional value. McGee even consults mathematician Melanie Phillips to help her develop a formula to calculate the emotional value of a relationship by plugging numbers rating various experiences into an equation.

One factor most people will not have considered is the “narrative value” of a relationship, i.e., how much mileage a person can get from telling or retailing events that happened during the period two people felt committed to each other. As McGee herself realizes in one of the many self-reflexive moments in this highly self-reflexive show, the entire show we are seeing is based on the narrative value of the eight objects in front of us, and that value is irrespective of whether the relationship was good or bad.

The other source of humour in Yard Sale is not merely trying to assign costs to feelings but the extraordinary depths McGee goes to in order to do this. One side of this is her maniacal tearing apart every possible aspect of a relationship that could have meaning and attempting to assign a number to it. The other side is her quest to find an overarching equation that will determine her value once all the X and Y place-holders have been filled in. The play starts with McGee using a pricing gun to put price labels on her face. The play ends McGee using the formula to put a price on herself.

Haley’s performance is sensational. She delivers virtually the entire play in a matter-of-fact tone, but is able to vary it subtly to indicate the sadness, anger and continued affection that belie her intended pursuit of totally rational assessment of emotions.

Director Mitchell Cushman’s company, Outside the March, is known for immersive theatre. Here Cushman has data in a brown envelop from a hidden number-cruncher slide in over the audience on a slanted wire. McGee opens doors that are simply part of the Michael Young Theatre to reveal numerous charts and spreadsheets that she needs in her calculations. More fancifully Cushman has information that McGee needs hidden in unusual parts of the theatre and even under the carpet where the plinths are standing. This is fun but it’s hard to see how this connects metaphorically with the theme of McGee’s play.

Where Cushman’s visual conception of the play is in sync with the McGee’s theme is the stage picture’s progression from order to chaos. The closer McGee comes to her all-emcompassing equation the more the stage, and even McGee herself, becomes covered in all manner of junk – paper, bubble-wrap, post-it notes, styrofoam pellets. The stage picture moves in the opposite direction of McGee’s inquiry into deeper detail and stricter logic and thus provides an ironic commentary on it.

Quite near the play’s close McGee writes out the grand equation to calculate the value of her having been in the past eight relationships on a piece of brown paper that extend across the entire back of the theatre and is so impossibly complicated McGee receives a round of applause simply for getting through this tour-de-force within the tour-de-force that is her play.

What sinks in most, however, are the few moments when McGee takes some respite from her arithmomania and speaks as a normal, non-obsessive person. On one of these occasions she realizes that each new relationship she has embarked upon was a means of correcting the flaws of the previous relationship, obviously a system that will never become stable. On another occasion, McGee mentions far too quickly that in each relationship she was seeking someone like her father. It’s a pity that McGee does not explore this point further or at least include a “father factor” in her equation.

Most revealing of all, is McGee’s statement that in 2019 when she did the show in Toronto to sold-out houses, she compared her revenue from the show to her expenses in putting it on and discovered that she lost $23,000. This figure above all stuck in my mind. It reveals the terrible fact that the vast majority of theatre artists really do their work for love, not for monetary compensation. That should make us ask, “Why do we value that love so little?”

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Haley McGee. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets visit www.soulpepper.ca.