"This room needs something!" exclaims Mary Louise Wilson, making her grand entrance as Diana Vreeland in "Full Gallop," the play based on the memoir of the great doyenne of fashion.
As the editor of Vogue, Vreeland told women what they needed--usually something that no one had suspected they would need before she made them realize they did.
Likewise, no one could have known that "D.V.," Vreeland's often tiresome autobiography, was something we needed to see on the stage, until Wilson and her co-author, Mark Hampton, transformed it into this delightful play, in its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre. As a writer, Vreeland was far from brilliant; her genius was in coming up with the un-pin-down-able, the stroke, the angle, the nuance that is the \o7 je ne sais quois \f7 of fashion. She was a visual artist. Written down, her ideas lost their effervescence; they became merely whimsical or even fatuous.
But certain personalities are born to live in the air and not on the page, and that is where Vreeland lived, breathing in the winds of change and carrying them to the readers first of Harper's Bazaar and then of Vogue. She was interesting because she was a woman who demanded, above all else, never to be bored.
Wilson captures the way in which Vreeland made the most banal thoughts surprising, even if they sometimes bordered on the idiotic. "I adore shepherd's pie!" she exclaims for no reason, and then adds, "Chutney!" Later it's "God, I miss fringe!" Sometimes she's dizzyingly incoherent: "Pink is the navy blue of India!"
Wilson fairly vibrates with Vreeland's appetite for flavors, colors, cultures, textures, for the things of the material world. She is the Auntie Mame of fashion.
"Full Gallop" resembles another one-character play, Jay Presson Allen's 1989 "Tru," in which the audience got to spend an evening in a fabulous Manhattan apartment hearing the intimate secrets of one of the great social personalities of the century, Truman Capote. "Full Gallop" gives us another fabulous creature of whim who spins seeming trivialities into pith. As a young married woman living in Europe, Vreeland once glimpsed Hitler at the opera. Her remembrance: "That mustache! Unbelievable! It was just \o7 wrong\f7 , you know what I mean?"
Most crucially, Wilson and Hampton show us a Vreeland whose pronouncements were not just the rantings of a spoiled wealthy woman with a powerful job. Hers was a philosophy of life, not of clothes. Her engine sometimes stalls, and she becomes drab and still when she relates the unpleasant parts of her story--the death of her beloved husband, Reed; her cruel firing from Vogue. But she never wallows; self-pity is too boring: "You gotta have style!" she confides. "It helps you get up in the morning!"
The play finds her in the early '70s, still smarting from her Vogue dismissal, and deciding whether to take a job at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (she would transform it into a vital part of the museum).
Wilson shows us that if Vreeland had a charmed life, it was because she \o7 made \f7 a charmed life. That was her real brilliance. The actress has created a perfect part for herself--simply, she is Vreeland, under that familiar Kabuki white make-up with the red streaks up the cheeks and across the top of the forehead. Vreeland was a hideous child, she informs us, as her own mother informed her. As a woman, few would dare to call her ugly, and she made sure that when you looked at her, you saw what was inside of her.
Of course, Vreeland figures out what that room needed. Flowers, lots of flowers, for which she does not have the money in her purse to tip the delivery boy. She carries one huge armload of white lilies to a vase and plunks them in.
"Excess!" she exclaims, in absolute heaven. Like those lilies, Vreeland epitomized excess--she stands for everything we don't know we need in life, but we actually do.
"Full Gallop," Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego, Tuesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m., Sunday 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 26. $20-$36. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. \f7 Mary Louise Wilson Diana Vreeland
An Old Globe Theatre production. By Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Sets by Allen Moyer. Costumes by Michael Krass. Lights by David F. Segal. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Wigs by Paul Huntley. Makeup by Randy Houston Mercer. Stage manager Raul Moncada.