“Nobody’s happy in real life,” Ben (Noah Strausser ’18) tells his little sister Hannah (Sara McCartney ’19). Clara Olshansky’s ’18 new play, “Talk Your Age,” which opens in a cruddy minimalist bathroom, is brutally honest in its realistic depictions of everyday life.
“Talk Your Age” explores the dysfunction of real-life relationships and questions the hierarchy of different kinds of love. The play revolves around a weekend trip taken by Ben, his girlfriend Isabel (Esther Ritchin ’20), and, against Ben’s will, his little sister Hannah. It’s the beginning of Ben and Isabel’s last summer at home before college, and the strain the impending distance between them is putting on their relationship comes through in their awkward exchanges and restrained arguments. Hannah also feels the pain of the upcoming separation from her college-bound brother, which hits her acutely since Ben is much more concerned with spending all of his remaining time with Isabel and none with his “freaky” sister.
The bulk of the play takes place at Isabel’s old friend Alli’s (Solia Hoegl’ 20) house, the location Ben and Isabel have chosen for their romantic rendezvous. The entire scenario feels like playing house: Alli showing off her house to her old friend Isabel, and Isabel and Ben’s attempts to solidify their relationship for the future by making it more grown-up. When the three older characters tell Hannah she’s acting immature, it’s incredibly ironic, since the audience watches these high school seniors try to pretend they’re adults.
The play is filled with awkward pauses and word vomit conversations, and every phrase of it rings true. Olshansky has mastered mundane dialogue, delivering a subtext of vulnerability through conversations about periods, crushes and college acceptance letters. The interactions on stage emphasizes the disconnection and artifice of relationships built around Snapchat streaks and Facebook profile pictures.
Hannah, a precocious, lonely middle schooler compensates for her lack of connection with her brother and her peers by talking to a puppet she has fashioned for her hand. McCartney’s puppet voices are hilarious, but the dialogue is heartbreaking, the puppet representing Hannah’s worst doubts about herself and the way others perceive her. As the show continues, the characters themselves become puppets in Hannah’s head as she imagines their conversations about her; a scene in which Hannah explores alternate realities of Ben and Isabel’s reactions to her sudden parting from Alli’s house is both amusing and telling. Hannah’s mocking voices of both her brother and Isabel mimic the whining of an early teen, but her insights into their arguments and the unspoken tensions between them are beyond her years. In these scenes of puppetry, Olshansky explores how we allow our assumptions about others to influence what we expect them to think and feel, and how often these assumptions are incorrect. McCartney’s ability to switch between difficult teen and loving, understanding sister with wisdom beyond her years is believable and adds touching and funny moments to the show.
As per all the relationships in the show, Alli and Isabel’s is also on the rocks, as Alli feels pushed aside by her friend in favor of quality time with Ben. Both Alli and Hannah feel snubbed by people who now hold their romantic relationship higher than anything else in their lives, and share a touching scene in which they deliver their lines like opening debate statements (mirroring an activity they both share). Alli, a high school senior, has also bought into the idea of adulthood equaling the renouncing of anything fun or enjoyable. When Hannah asks her what she loves to do, Alli doesn’t even have an answer.
Played for a Yale audience, this discussion is relatable yet distressing — how much childhood is sacrificed in exchange for pursuing what is practical? Even once we are into college, aren’t we encouraged to give up what we love if it doesn’t come with easy job opportunities?
The play ends by exposing the fractures in each of the relationships and the characters’ feeble attempts at achieving adulthood. In a final scene between Alli and Isabel, Alli asks Isabel if she misses her, and she says she doesn’t know. The moment is delivered so matter-of-factly, the women sitting on the ground of the stage as if on a living room floor, that the line lands even more painfully. Blowout fights between Ben and Hannah and Ben and Isabel also occur, and the play leaves their stories in a state of limbo: the audience is unsure about the future of any of the relationships, and almost wants to yell at the characters to just say how they’re truly feeling.
The only relationship that seems stable is the one between Ben and Hannah, bound by a love that feels less renounceable, and the entire play questions the trope of prioritizing romantic relationships over other forms of love. Hannah tells her brother that she doesn’t even want to be in a relationship because then you have “twice as many chances to be unhappy — I only have to be unhappy when I’m unhappy.” Yet that seems to be the definition of love in “Talk Your Age”: the preoccupation with another’s emotions, the desire to make them miss you, love you and be proud of you. As in real life, many of the relationships in “Talk Your Age” are difficult and strained, yet the play ends on a positive note, showing the underlying love that exists even in relationships that aren’t working.