Clothes can put Sophie into a rhapsody like nothing else. Ever since she was a kid, scouring thrift stores for second-hand style, her purchases felt like victories.
In those early years, part of the excitement came from finding brand names that would help her fit in better with the kids at school. But she’s always had an eye for fashion, no matter how impractical.
By the time she’s a young adult, an aspiring writer living in London and stalking sample sales, the dresses and sweaters and shoes she drags home to her room in bulging bags have little to do with wearability. Does she need five prom dresses? No. But shopping is how Sophie calms her increasingly anxious mind.
Laura Horton’s poignant comedic monologue ‘Breathless’, part of the British Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theatres, finds Sophie at a breaking point. Played by Madeleine MacMahon, who gives her a nervous sympathy, Sophie seems to have arrived at a joyous time in life. She’s in her late thirties and has a thoughtful, interesting new girlfriend, Jo, whom Sophie envisions as a long-term partner. But at the end of each date, she makes up reasons why Jo can’t get into her apartment.
‘There’s all the time in the world to see my house,’ Sophie says, but there isn’t, because Jo is tired of being kept at a distance. Sophie is too embarrassed to admit that her apartment is crammed with clothes – a dangerous, suffocating, hoarding of clothes – and is being dumped. She’s essentially chosen Vivienne Westwood (Ah, that plaid dress!) and Stella McCartney (Oh, those screen-printed pants!) over a woman who loves her.
Stephanie Kempson’s production for Theater Royal Plymouth cleverly lets us imagine Sophie’s labyrinth of clothes, her towers of shoes. The set and props are minimal: a few clothes racks with empty clothes bags; a single Alexander McQueen shopping bag. Sophie wears the same casual outfit all the time: loose overalls with sneakers. (Set and costumes are by Kempson, Horton and MacMahon.)
The play is given a lively hold by MacMahon’s performance, which includes a small gallery of supporting characters. Among them are Sophie’s sweet, grumpy father and her imperturbably loving mother, whose warmth is as enveloping as a hug.
There’s also a journalist friend who promises (spoiler) Sophie anonymity in a story about hoarding, then spreads her name and photo all over a national newspaper. The betrayal hits so hard in the performance that I wanted to beg the fictional Sophie not to believe her friend, as she does, that it’s all his editors’ fault.
A program note says the play is based on Horton’s “own experiences of hoarding”, and quotes her as saying she was “heavily influenced by ‘Sex and the City’ growing up”. So it seems only fitting that “Breathless” takes the stage in a part of Manhattan – about halfway between a Dior boutique and Bloomingdale’s – where luxury beckons and the price is high.
Through May 7 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes.