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One of the most insidious problems with depression is that the pathological despair that tethers and tortures its victims can be mistaken for, or trivialized as, a sort of Holden Caulfield style of whiny malaise. Studio Theatre’s Mary-Kate Olsen is in Love, helmed by Holly Twyford, falls into a similar trap: The play is a painfully precise, artful look inside a depressed mind, but that level of accuracy comes at the price of spending an awful lot of time hearing millennials complain about their relatively privileged lives.
Grace (Katie Ryan) is aware that the life she can barely stand to lead isn’t a dramatically wretched one (compared to, say, starving in a gutter). She has a fairly typical life for a young, middle-class white kid, but she finds it utterly devoid of meaning. After a youth spent chasing all the jobs, classes, and extracurriculars she was “supposed” to for the promise of a fulfilling adulthood, Grace finds herself in a dead marriage with an 80-hour-a-week job that leaves her too tired to do much more in her free time than watch TV from the couch while her bump-on-a-log husband Tyler (Daniel Corey) spends his days (and perhaps 80 percent of the play) splayed out silently on the floor, playing Call of Duty from a beanbag chair.
Grace’s life is badly in need of a spark, and unfortunately for her, it arrives in the form of a haunting from decidedly more chipper versions of fellow millennials Mary-Kate (Suzanne Stanley) and Ashley (Sara Dabney Tisdale) Olsen. The sisterly specters barge into Grace’s dreams to give her weary mind a bit of merry hell with their caffeine-, alcohol-, and cigarette-fueled pep.
Where Grace has spent her adult life turning down this volunteer opportunity or that life experience for not being “authentic” enough, the twins lead a seemingly fulfilling life while not appearing to do much of anything (which is fine, quips Ashley, since they’re celebrities). This injustice proves to be more than Grace can bear: Something breaks within her, and her dreams spill over into her waking life for the rest of the play, which operates under the loosely-defined rules of dream logic.
Things get surreal fast: A soldier (Christian R. Gibbs) from Tyler’s game starts materializing in the real world and wheedles Tyler to do something with his life. Tyler decides to enlist in the virtual military of Call of Duty (which he accomplishes, somehow; again: dream logic). And when the titular Mary-Kate inevitably falls in love with Grace, she whisks them away to a tropical beach in New Zealand (which causes them to later remark with confusion that New Zealand doesn’t actually have any tropical beaches).
Paige Hathaway’s bare-bones set helps sell the play’s ambiguous dream setting—the sharpie-and-cardboard aesthetic of the walls and furniture are reminiscent of the imaginary headspace in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and evoke a childhood game of playing house, one of the earliest ways we try to puzzle out what life will be like as an adult.
Cementing Grace’s misery is a chorus of five young, bright-eyed “Amazing Girls,” who also spend a lot of time wondering what their adult lives will be like. They visit, singing and humming, between scenes to breathlessly lay out their ambitious dreams for the future. Perhaps worried that Grace’s life wouldn’t be sufficiently tragic had she never had dreams to lose in the first place, playwright Mallery Avidon trots the Girls out regularly as a reminder of how many ambitions Grace has failed to realize.
Though there are plenty of one-liners and a good comedic exchange or two (though sadly, one of the biggest laugh lines is the soldier abruptly admitting he wants to write a book of poems), the play never quite manages to lift itself out of Grace’s melancholy. We leave the character more or less as hopeless as we found her, presumably to wake to the same meaningless life. As an examination of depression, that makes for a compellingly vivid hour and change; as nights out at the theater go, though, it’s awfully bleak.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$30. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org