Addison — How do you react to a woman like this: someone who leans from a balcony for a look at the up-and-coming Herr Hitler (it’s the 1930s in Germany), and announces that his moustache is “soooo wrong”? You can write her off as flip and superficial, or you can begin to wonder if, in her own way, she’s seeing straight through to the heart of things.
In Full Gallop at Water Tower Theatre, Diana Sheehan’s extravagant, quip-alicious performance as fashion guru Diana Vreeland will drive you a bit mad—but that’s the reaction most people had to America’s high-style priestess, whose words seemed always to erupt as proclamations, both random (“God, I miss fringe!”) and pointed (“You gotta have style. It helps you get up in the morning.”). Her language was as high-flying as the lady herself, with “the exhilarating effect of Cole Porter lyrics,” said actress Mary Louise Wilson, who co-wrote Full Gallop with Mark Hampton and originated the role in New York. This production is directed with a light hand by WTT head Terry Martin, who also designed the set in the Addison Theatre Centre's Studio Theatre, a loose rendition of Vreeland’s famously blood-red Park Avenue apartment.
Don’t know who Vreeland was? She was the first fashion editor of Harper’s Bazaar (1936-1962), and Vogue magazine’s most famous editor-in-chief (1963-1971). For nearly 40 years, the divine Ms. V—no beauty herself, as she’d be the first to say—laid down fashion laws for American women, and gave them “what they never knew they wanted.” You may have met her in the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar, where drag queen Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) gives a copy of Vreeland’s autobiography to a small-town clerk and tells him it’s so important he needs to “commit sections to memory.” And Vreeland was the model for the idea-spouting, arm-waving fashion editor who takes Audrey Hepburn to Paris in Funny Face.
She put teenager Lauren Bacall on the cover of Harper’s, loved eccentric beauties like the model Twiggy, and minted the term youthquake to describe what she loved about the 1960s, whose clothes alone, she said, should have told us a revolution was coming. Her response to beauty and style was instinctual and bone-deep: “Only beautiful things!” she cries, racing around her apartment with a museum curator’s eye, moving this, draping that.
The play itself is a dizzying “full gallop” around Vreeland’s mind and memories—and we feel a bit like we’re trotting behind her on a pony, trying to keep up. But Sheehan’s Vreeland knows we’re there, and keeps coming back to engage us: bending forward to let the first row smell a bouquet of lilies, tossing us questions we’re half tempted to answer, shoving an unpaid bill into a box already crammed with them—and then turning to the audience to dazzle and distract with a brilliant smile.
Because the fact is, the divine Ms. V is out of a job. All her life, Vreeland had more style than money—though she kept that and much else to herself—and the play finds her just back from a 1971 trip to Europe, where she fled after the suits at Vogue fired her with a letter on her desk.
The notoriously hard-working Vreeland is at a crossroads. What will she do now? Friends offer conflicting advice, and she’s avoiding calls about a project at the Met. Aggravating this career crisis is a smaller domestic one: Vreeland has guests coming tonight for a dinner party—but with a borrowed cook and an empty fridge, how’s that going to happen? This subplot whips up a comic froth, as Vreeland cadges money from the staff, tries to locate her kitchen, and makes bright suggestions through the intercom to a never-seen French maid Yvonne (sardonically voiced by Ellen Locy).
And between fits of party planning, she tells stories: some about her own life, but more about her famous friends, from the Duke of Windsor to Coco Chanel. She sketches a brief portrait of the handsome husband she loved for 40-plus years, but says nothing about her grief at his death. The closest she comes is one sob, ruthlessly cut off, over a grandson who’s shaved off his beautiful hair: “There’s enough ugliness in the world!” she cries. “Why add to it?”
It’s a play that sticks to the surface of things—but to tell the truth, that’s how Vreeland was. Her social set, and her generation, turned their best face to the world, and kept troubles and turmoil under their very chic hats. Her world is color and texture, fabric and trim, fashion and celebrity and beauty—and why should we care? Genius French filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who crossed paths with Vreeland in the Paris of the ‘30s, argues for the defense:
“Style," he says, "is a simple way of saying complicated things."
Sheehan as Vreeland never says those complicated things, but we sense there’s more to her than we know: the anger in her eyes, as she turns away from the memory of her husband’s deathbed, tells us more than words could say. An interesting woman…and though we don’t need many Diana Vreelands in our world, one of them, once in a while—c’est magnifique!