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Theatre in Review: Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love (The Flea Theatre)

Katherine Folk-Sullivan and Alex Grubb. Photo: Hunter Canning

You know you're in trouble when you start to begin receiving visitations from the Olsen twins, those ex-TV stars and professional fashion victims. That's the bizarre fact of life facing Grace, the beleaguered heroine of Mallery Avidon's bleakly amusing comedy. At 28, Grace's life is stuck somewhere between neutral and reverse. Her hold on her job is fragile. Her husband, Tyler, hasn't worked in four years; he spends his time smoking pot and playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. She comes home each night, plops down on the couch, and watches trash television, a bottle of white wine always at her side. That's when the Olsen twins appear out of nowhere, probing her for fashion advice: "Is this purple and tan okay together?" "Can I wear purple and lime green?" "What's the next big thing then? Tigers? Crocheted bikinis?"

This twin airhead act grates on Grace, who is in turn informed that she is "a desirable demographic" by the Olsen twins, who are trying to be "serious artists" and reach out to adult customers. "You're our new target audience," Ashley says. "You're the right kind of average," adds Mary-Kate.

Later on, the Olsens grow more assertive, informing Grace that she isn't keeping up with the times -- or with fashion. ("Once the outside looks right, maybe the inside will get in line," one of them suggests, hopefully.) Most of the funniest passages in the play feature the Olsens functioning as a kind of twin Greek chorus, offering their own consumer-oriented version of stichomythia, delivered in deadpan Valley-girl tones:
Ashley: You should start wearing skirts.
Mary-Kate: If you don't look feminine, you won't make a good wife.
Ashley: You do want to fix yourself, right?
Mary-Kate: There are a lot of broken people Gracie, but you don't have to be one of them.
Ashley: There's medication now.
Mary-Late: To make you less anxious, less depressed, less aware, less alone.
Ashley: There's a pill that will make you want to sleep with your husband.
Mary-Kate: There's a pill to make you brush your hair and put on makeup.
Ashley: Science can fix you.

None of this is welcome news to Grace, who has been an achiever all her life and has nothing to show for it. Or, as Mary-Kate, who is crazy like a fox, puts it, "You took all the right steps, but you ended up in Guam instead of Hawaii." Meanwhile, the action is frequently interrupted by the Amazing Girls, a set of nervously expectant adolescents who reveal their many plans for the future, which include visiting Rio during Carnival time, growing organic vegetables, learning to surf, taking cooking classes in Italy, and reading Ulysses and understanding it. Meanwhile, in the game room, Tyler is being harassed by a soldier, seemingly sprung from his edition of Call of Duty, who harasses him for his neglect of Grace. "You're like a 45-year-old divorcee with two kids whose man left her for the secretary. Minus the kids," he tells Tyler contemptuously. Indeed, things look really bad for Tyler when Grace and Mary-Kate decide they are in love and run off to New Zealand together, thus depriving him of an income.

It's probably going a little too far to call Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love a play; Grace and Tyler are no more developed as characters than their visitors, and almost nothing happens. (Neither the Olsens nor the soldier are figments of Grace and Tyler's imaginations; they are flesh-and-blood creatures, and there's no explanation for that.) Instead, it's a series of theatrical devices artfully deployed to distill a portrait of the Millennial generation -- especially those women raised with expectations of endless horizons -- who find their dreams undone, having come of age just as the economy was tanking. (The dreams of the Amazing Girls sound particularly poignant as we see Grace and Tyler drifting on a sea of disappointments, taking advice from aging child stars and digital warriors.) If you can accept the limitations of this format, you'll find plenty to like in the author's icily exact language and dead-on eye for the absurdity in so much of popular discourse.

As a bonus, the director, Kristan Seemel (who keeps the action moving at the necessary rapid clip) draws on The Bats, the resident company of young talents so carefully cultivated by the artistic director, Jim Simpson. Katherine Folk-Sullivan thoroughly captures Grace's bafflement at the strange turns her life has taken, and Alex Grubbs makes a most believable man-child as Tyler. And Kana Hatakeyama and Christine Lee make a riotous pair of empty-headed worldlings as Ashley and Mary-Kate. (Each year's crop of Bats is more appealing than its predecessor; Simpson certainly has a knack for noticing talent.)

The play is staged in the Flea's basement space, so don't expect lavish production values. Still Scott Tedmon-Jones' simple, functional set, John Eckert's surprisingly detailed lighting, Asta Hostetter's costumes, and Kevin Brouder's sound are all more than acceptable.

Everybody in Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love ends up pretty much where they started, if a little worse for wear. Then again, that seems to be Avidon's point; her characters can neither move forward nor back. They're perpetually running in place, like hamsters in a cage. It's a dispiriting point, but it is made with a considerable amount of cleverness.--David Barbour


(19 November 2013)

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