Haley McGee’s The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale Is A Marvel Of Wit & Wisdom

Haley McGee in Soulpepper Theatre’s The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale (Photo: Matt Peberdy)

Soulpepper, Outside the March & Red Light District/The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, written and performed by Haley McGee, directed by Mitchell Cushman, Young Centre for the Arts. Oct. 18 to Nov. 6. Tickets available here. 

Clever is too tame a word to describe The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale. The plot surprises. The language surprises. The theme surprises. In short, Haley McGee’s autobiographical, one-woman show is a veritable tour de force.

Picture this: the stage is festooned with pedestals of various sizes with objects on them. It turns out that McGee is broke and has to raise some cash, which she plans to do by having a yard sale. It also turns out that the only things she has that are worth anything were all given to her by her eight ex-boyfriends.

(Before the show begins, the audience is invited up to the stage to examine these objects and fill out a survey answering the question, “What would you pay for this?”, which you fill in beside little pictographs of each item. The eight gifts include a typewriter, bicycle, T-shirt, cassette player, knapsack, ukulele, necklace and a jewellery box.)

But how do you price these objects? After all, everything sold at a yard sale needs some monetary value. This leads McGee to the existential question of what is the value of our romantic relationships? To that end, she turns to her friend Melanie Phillips (Phillips in the program; Melanie Frances in the script) to devise a formula to determine the cost of love.

Phillips is apparently a mathematical genius with a lofty degree from Edinburgh University. Throughout the play, McGee also mentions other brainiacs (as she calls them), who work in various fields, that she also consulted to help fashion the formula. In other words, McGee and Phillips are in pursuit of a single mathematical algorithm that can be universally applied, and by the end of the play, the audience has been given an in-depth treatise on economics.

What follows is a dizzying array of complicated mathematical calculations that are as funny as they are true. For example, how do variants such as, how long did the relationship last, who broke up with whom, who inflicted the most pain, and who said “I love you” first, affect the value? There are wild cards that have to be taken into account, like the Martha Factor, inspired by Tom Waits’ eponymous song about a never-forgotten love.

In fact, the staggering number of things that the duo has to consider as part of formulating the formula keeps growing and growing, and arises out of McGee and Phillips’ razor-sharp dissection of a romantic relationship that boggles the mind. When McGee finally writes out the formula, it literally covers the entire back wall of the theatre.

Haley McGee in Soulpepper Theatre's Boyfriend Yard Sale (Photos: Sophie le Roux/Matt Peberdy)
Haley McGee in Soulpepper Theatre’s The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale (Photos: Sophie le Roux/Matt Peberdy)

You would think that an assault of facts and figures would not be the stuff of a scintillating play, but nothing could be further from the truth. The sheer cleverness of the what, the where and the why of how the formula is created is absolutely fascinating. (I have been deliberately vague as to not spoil the experience of discovery for potential audiences.)

Then, there are the ex-boyfriends. Along the way McGee details the stories behind these romantic entanglements, each one being very different. McGee even interviewed each of the exes, and we also hear their very amusing responses (or lack thereof).

McGee, who was always considered one of our finest actors, now lives in London, England, where The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale premiered at the Camden People’s Theatre in 2018. Seeing her perform on a Toronto stage again reminds us of the towering talent that she is. How she tosses off the cold mathematical concerns, contrasted by the poignancy of her romances, is a lesson in how to command the stage. McGee gives a brilliant performance that is as exuberant as it is entertaining. What a storyteller she is.

(I should mention that McGee performed the play for seven sold-out performances in Toronto at 2019’s Progress Festival, and it was that much-lauded, albeit short run, which turned The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale into the stuff of legends. We are all certainly thrilled that McGee is bringing the play to Soulpepper, so thank you artistic director Weyni Mengesha.)

Which brings us to director Mitchell Cushman. If you parachuted me into the theatre from Mars, I would still know that there is only one person in the world who could have directed The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale. To accompany McGee’s sharp, amusing and ingenious script, Cushman has provided jaw-dropping, eye-popping staging that is pure virtuosity.

To be fair, Anna Reid is listed as set designer, and I’m sure she figured out the mechanics, but I’ll bet my hat that the general idea for the staging came from Cushman. It has his visionary stamp all over the production. While we’re at it, we should also single out Lucy Adams’ pin-spot, precise lighting which adds so much to the eye candy.

To outline the mathematical calculations, all kinds of charts and graphs and cables and pulleys and sticky notes, and heaven knows what else, keep McGee hopping all over the stage. You simply never know from whence another piece of paper or wire will appear. The visual aspect of the show is an absolute delight, and matches the lively text in perfect harmony.

The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale might ask the basic question, “can we turn sentimental value into cold hard cash?”, but along the way, McGee even poses bigger questions about life and love that arise from the subtext. Simply put, this play is a marvel of wit and wisdom.

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Paula Citron
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