BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Full Gallop, reviewed by Elyse Sommer
Mary Louise Wilson's reprise of her MTC Obie and Drama Desk Award winning role as Diana Vreeland is a delicious and empathetic ode to excess and eccentricity. To set the mood for her one-woman play, Full Gallop, John Noonan has espoused Vreeland's dictum that "Red is a great clarifier--it makes everything else look good" and set the Westside Theatre's stage ablaze with bright red floral chintzes and walls that wrap themselves around the front rows. While the set does indeed serve to clarify the dash and excess that defined the woman who was long considered New York's leading fashion arbiter, it is Mary Louise Wilson who shows us all the shadings in Vreeland's public and private persona--from charismatic and commanding style authority to amusing and surprisingly endearing human being. She serves the play's very funny lines with such perfect precision that the audience's laughter bounces back without a miss.
Interspersed with the humor which dominates the evening are enough moments that expose the vulnerability which the emotionally reticent Vreeland tended to keep tucked behind her glossy exterior. These moments--and she never stays sad or introspective for long--are enough to make us like her as well as laugh with and at her. That's not to say that this play, a collaboration between Wilson and Mark Hampton, is a heavyweight. It's basic premise is fabricated more from tissue paper than cloth. The time is 1971, three months after Vreeland's precipitous dismissal as Vogue's editor in chief and shortly before her triumphant affiliation with the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The plot conflict, if it can be dignified as such, is a dinner party which she can ill afford and which may end up without any food.
Underlying all the hustle and bustle surrounding this domestic situation is Vreeland's uncertainty about her future. She has assured one of her numerous telephone callers that it's all behind her now and that she is "back on her own horse" but it's clear that comething needs to be done if she is to support her accustomed life style. In another phone conversation with the late Hollywood deal maker Swifty Lazar, she neatly covers her disappointment when he tells her a book about herself wouldn't sell. That's it. But no matter. Whether you care about what's fashionable or live in blue jeans which, Vreeland considered "the greatest invention since the gondola," you'll enjoy watching and listening to her anecdotes about her life, her friends and acquaintances and, most touchingly, the man she loved for the forty years of their marriage. Her understated description of his death followed by a pretend dance with him provides one of the evening's most moving scenes.
Just looking at Wilson-à la-Vreeland is fun. Her hair an unbelievably glossy black, especially for a woman her age. And like the room she's full of "clarifying red"--from the lacquered nails to the Kabuki-like rouged cheeks and ears. And if you think Wilson is exaggerating the Vreeland look--on the contrary. She's much sturdier, more normal looking than the Vreeland I met twenty years ago at the Costume Institute--pencil thin, ghostly white skin with the rouged areas bright orange! Under Nicholas Martin's direction, Vreeland's love of excess is also echoed in the way she charges around the apartment, especially early on in the play when she fills vase after vase with lavish bouquets of flowers, noting that she's "a great believer in vulgarity--we all need a splash of bad taste."
Act 1 ends with the dinner situation getting to the critical point and Vreeland heading towards the kitchen she barely knows how to find in order to troubleshoot. While Act 2 is much too good to be considered a failure, it is not quite as much of a triumph. The anecdotes and pronouncements tend to ramble on just a bit. Despite wonderful bits like "pink is India's navy blue" the discourse on color is too long. After this too-leisurely canter, Vreeland's final move into full gallop comes somewhat too abruptly.
Vreeland's second career with the Metropolitan made her wish to write a book about herself much more viable. I don't know if Swifty Lazaar made the deal for her, but Knopf did publish her very enjoyable memoir, D.V. in 1984.