I fell in love with a play about “falling in love” and “stardom”; the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. I’ve been allergic to peanuts since puberty, yet I still remember their earthy, sweet-buttery taste, one that I can never have again. I am forever tortured by empty chocolate-cups and mocked by nut-less jelly sandwiches. Our love for celebrities is a similar kind of despair. We watch and love them, even if that love comes through hating, or ignoring, or ridiculing them. Despite these powerful feelings, we are always distanced or separated from them. While occasionally we might come close to those we adore from afar—so close as to make brief contact—such encounters can lead to fainting, hives, and other, more severe allergic reactions.
I fell in love with Mallery Avidon’s Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love during a reading. I fell because it erases the distance and reverses the roles. It acknowledges that stars impact and shape our lives, whether we are fans or not. I fell in love with the play because it fell for me. It loves its fans. Truly. I grew up in the ’80s and watched the infant Olsen twins on TV’s Full House grow up, generate their own production company, brand, series of films; we all watched them become fashionistas and headlines in grocery store checkouts. In Mallery’s play, however, the Olsen twins’ love for a new audience splits into many kinds of love. There is the classic love story of abandonment, betrayal, and tears, layered over a stale marriage in a marijuana haze. There is also the love inside dreams of growing up, which map from the Olsen twins onto a chorus of amazing, but not famous, girls.
Many of Mallery’s plays feature mainstream media stars who make an intimate connection with their audience, revealing how the idols and goals in our ever-mediated lives offer us not just hope and love but also despair and isolation. In queerSpawn, figures such as Brad Pitt, Fred Phelps, and Dan Savage emerge in a teenager’s imagination as best friends and fiends. In O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you, Julia Roberts attempts to offer sage advice to a confused and frustrated version of Mallery.
In Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love the Olsen twins find disaffected Grace, “a wife- 18-49- Homeowner- Good Credit Rating,” to be their new target audience, but what we witness is their desperate courtship as it blossoms and withers. Grace isn’t even a fan. To her the Olsen twins are simply recognizable faces. Simplicity is questioned when the Olsens recognize beyond a demographic to find a true love for Grace. To the twins, Grace has that ineffable quality of stardom that should surround them. In his 2007 book It, Yale Drama Professor Joseph Roach explores that quality of stardom, finding at the heart of “the It-effect” the “apparently effortless embodiment of contradictory qualities simultaneously: strength and vulnerability, innocence and experience, and singularity and typicality among them.” Amid the waste-bins of popular culture, Mallery pulls us into a love story with our own place and time, discovering the singularity and the typicality of both celebrities and ourselves.
From afar I call Mallery on the phone and tell her about how much I love her play and, specifically, how much I love her use of celebrities as characters onstage.
She tells me that celebrities are characters in countless plays dating back to the dawn of theater.
I tell her that she does it best.
She tells me not to be hagiographic.
Hagiography is a biography that praises someone too much, or a biography where the fan in the biographer overshadows the celebrity whose life is the subject. As a fan, I would like to point out that hagiography is also the study of Saints.
I want to talk about other kinds of loves and celebrities. I ask her about celebrity encounters with Mary-Kate, about being famous.
Mallery asks, “Are you talking about the celebrity or my play?”
Probably because I take too long to answer, Mallery continues:
I’m not [famous]. I just feel in these very small ways what being famous could be like, which is to me mostly that people know who you are without you knowing who they are. And how quickly that is really disconcerting. Especially because growing up I was so good with names and faces. As a kid, if someone approached me and knew me, I would remember who they were, where we met, what they do. That isn’t true anymore. I don’t know if that’s because people know who I am without me having met them or if it’s because those aspects of personal knowledge are so prevalent in the theater. It’s like the way theater people use your full name and introduce you as a playwright. You know? It proves that theater people aren’t ever actually famous because they always have to contextualize who the person is and why you should care because even though you actually do theater you don’t actually know who they are.
Mallery laughs. Then stops. “I don’t know if that’s actually true. What? You want to know if Mary-Kate Olsen knows about my play?”
I nod, which she can’t see.
Wait, now I have to go in because I’ve just been sitting out here on my stoop.
The Flea’s publicist said that Mary-Kate’s publicists asked for the script.
So. Keys. So.
My agent is in the same agency so we passed off the script and asked her to design costumes. And we haven’t heard anything back. I assume that means she’s not going to sue me. But really what I got is: that-time-I-asked-Mary-Kate-Olsen-to-design-costumes-for-a-play-I-wrote-about-the idea-of-her-celebrity! So that’s cool.
I mumble something, asking would she want to be a famous writer?
Mallery laughs again:
It’s funny, what does being a famous writer mean? Is Tracy Letts on Homeland more famous now as an actor on TV? I mean, that recognition, even though he won the Pulitzer for August: Osage County and it was made into a movie?
I ask her what she’s in love with.
Mallery tells me:
I feel like there is a lot of really exciting writing going on. RoosevElvis, Marie Antoinette, Mr. Burns; three amazing shows in a week. I’m really into Adam Rapp’s work. Ideas around his work appeal to me in unexpected ways. I’m really into the work of my friends right now: Greg Moss, Max Posner, Jackie Sibbles Drury, William Burke. Or a beyond: Dan LeFranc, Jordan Harrison. Will Eno, Will fucking Eno right? Annie Baker. I’m always jealous of designers because they get to work across the economic scale of theater—a designer can do a super, super crazy downtown thing and a show on Broadway way more often than an actor, or playwright, or director. Because they can work on more projects at once and pick things they really love. There are different audiences in those venues.
That’s exciting. Will Eno’s going to Broadway and that’s exciting to me. But also I hate Broadway, if that means Eno’s plays are only on Broadway then that makes me mad. How would Broadway influence his work? Plus then I couldn’t afford it.
I ask her about loves apart from the theater, an obvious hint—she doesn’t get very far from talking about theater. Mallery:
Street art, graffiti, whatever you want to call it, is inherently site-specific and ephemeral which means it’s like the most similar to theater as far as I’m concerned. And it’s free. It’s one of those things that’s cool and not cool. Like theater. Bansky’s cool and not cool. Because he’s been around for so long. Because some think he’s cool, some think he is a sellout, and some don’t want graffiti to move into art at all. You know, those who care about how it started with people bombing trains. And its movement from disenfranchisement into art practice. And that evolution can be so—I guess that’s why he’s called Banksy. But the street art interest is awesome.
I echo “awesome” and tell Mallery I’m from the West Coast too.
She makes that sound of “missing home,” a kind of cute, questioning “oooooh,” then continues:
It is awesome. A good excuse to go for a walk. I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge for the first time. A lot of cool stuff there. All these little love notes, like, “I just want to go home to you but you’re not there,” and, “I want to ravage you like a wild animal.” And a “we will be ephemeral” tag. I could have gotten to most of the places faster with public transportation but this is how I interact with urban space landscapes. The character most like me in breaks & bikes is a street artist. Again, probably, it is the thing that is to me most like theater but accesses an audience I’m interested in.”
I ask Mallery if I’m an audience she’s interested in and she says any audience is cool:
It’s the same way me and my friends talk about trying to get a rock show audience. My ideal audience for Mary-Kate is 17-year-old girls because the play is framed by 17 year-old-girls. Although I don’t necessarily feel any better at decoding the world or making the right choices than as I did at 17, I don’t feel 17.
I try to act out like a teenager on the phone and Mallery is not impressed. So I immediately cover up and say it was all an act, and to compensate I try to get into this really deep discussion that somehow traps Mallery into saying:
...the stereotypical American dream life. I don’t know—end of empire and all of that. Ideally, I want that teenage audience to question these things now because what is attainable and imaginable for our future is always changing. The subscriber base is old—an agent told me that theaters won’t do plays about young people or even people in their twenties. How can we have arguments about young people attending theater if we won’t do plays about them? But I notice that some older people love work directed at younger audiences. I realize ‘oh, they have kids.’ And so there is something about writing about young people that can be interesting or moving to older people in a way that I think doesn’t work the other way. It does not seem mysterious or complex why parents do the things they do to their kids but parents are mystified by what their kids do. It all cycles back together, I guess. There’s either a backlash against young people by theater or by young people against theater. I go to theater all the time but I’m not young anymore!
Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love by Mallery Avidon will have its World Premier at The Flea Theater in Manhattan. It runs November 1 – December 8. For tickets and further info, visit theflea.org.