Michelle “Shells” Haylie Hoffman Takes Manhattan
You know Michelle “Shells” Haylie Hoffman. Or you know her type—fancy drinks, break-the-bank shoes and brand names flying from her lips like signal flares to any moneyed, available men in the vicinity—“I know what’s hot, so I am hot!”
For all her money, her ’tude and her talk, it’s clear to everyone that, despite her outward success, she’s fallen to the back of the pack in the one race that truly matters—love. She’s bold, smart, ambitious, and emotionally volatile—in other words, a girl you don’t want to see drunk.
Unless she’s on stage. And singing...
Enter Nick Chase and Roslyn Hart, the creators of this 34 16 train wreck that audiences hate to love. On the success of two downtown appearances in 2007, they’ve taken Shells’ internecine battle with herself and a world that won’t conform to her dreams to a summer residency at Joe’s Pub this summer in all its drunken, cringe-worthy hilarity.
As performed by Hart (with accompaniment by composer Katie Thompson, who scores Shells’ original tunes), Shells is a senior analyst at JP MorganChase whose found downtown fame as a cabaret singer after the fade-out of Scott, the soulmate who seems to have misplaced her number after their one date in February 2007. Her shows are both her revenge on Scott and her cries for help.
To hear her tell it, they’re about how she’s “gotten over” Scott (a victory she’s achieved five separate times this year alone), but after a few drinks, she’s drunk-dialing him again and again, carrying on a conversation with his voicemail that makes the attainment of her goal less likely with every ill-advised word she blurts into the void. Shells spouts female independence and empowerment, but she barely buys that act herself. By the time she hits her signature Shiraz, she’s openly confessing she’d throw it all away for quiet nights at home with the man of her dreams.
If Shells’ life seems like Sex in the City with a heavy dose of drunken pathos, that’s no accident, according to Shells’ creators. The HBO series both tempts and torments Shells—pitting her every relationship, every choice, every look in the mirror, against the fairy tale glamour of Carrie Bradshaw and her expensive and romantic pursuit of, and by, Mr. Big.
“I think some women think that if I dress like Carrie, and I go to places where Carrie goes, then this will happen to me,” says Hart.
Shells idolizes Sex in the City. Whatever friends she might have—even Scott—are the supporting cast to her Carrie. She taps her friends as her “Miranda” or her “Charlotte,” trying to cram flesh-and-blood people into the convenient roles she would have them play. Her reality—crafted as it is—is no more than plot-fodder in a narrative that consumes even its creator.
And that’s where the real tragedy and painful humor of Shells lies, Chase says. She’s bought the dream, and real life will never measure up.
“I just think that the people who subscribe to that lifestyle get duped into believing that they can somehow have that life,” he says. “I think that’s a difficult and tortuous position to put yourself in because no one’s ever going to live like that.”
If Carrie Bradshaw has her column to pour her angst into, Shells has the stage, one that extends far beyond the four walls of Joe’s Pub. From her shows to MySpace to YouTube, she desperately peddles her myth to her public and herself. And like Sex in the City (in some ways like a Beckett character) all her parties, events, and shows propel her nowhere—except to the next appearance.
“What we’re trying to do with Shells is that it’s sort of episodic theater,” says Chase. “Every time you come Shells gets closer to the idea of Scott. She gets closer and closer each time, and there’s some new variation. It’s like watching a sitcom, except it’s on stage, so it’s better.”
Despite her budding fame, however, Shells is an uneasy celebrity. Being perpetually on the rebound from a relationship that hardly happened—and loudly broadcasting every twist and turn on the road there and back (and back and back and back)—takes a lot out of a girl. Though she’s started to perform original songs (the barn-burner “Gramercy Rooftop” is a highlight), this feels less like an embrace of fame than another pluck of the eyebrow to attract Scott.
In the end, Shells is more earthbound than she may initially appear. The out-sized scale of her persona belies how vulnerable she is to being just like us, lonely (only louder). When the last song has been sung, all her friends have been offended and Shells stares glassy-eyed into her final overfull glass of Shiraz; even she can’t deny reality any longer. Will she ever face it sober? Keep watching.
Shells, Slumber Partyperforms July 20 at Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St. Please visit www.publictheater.org for more information.
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.