“You can never be too rich or too thin.” One of the great one-liners of the last century and vintage Diana Vreeland. It turns out that Vreeland (1903-1989), the influential fashion journalist and doyenne, was so profligate with her verbal baubles that playwrights Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson had no need to quote that line in Full Gallop, the poignant but sparkling one-woman show on Vreeland’s life at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre. A full evening of nothing but her zingers would make a pretty amusing night all by themselves, some matching the best of Oscar Wilde, Mae West or Lao Tzu. Instead, Full Gallop portrays the grande dame at low ebb after a stinging defeat. It’s a time for soul-searching, and we join her quest.
We have come to recognize that fashion divas are inherently theatrical, but they are not all, ahem, cut from the same cloth. Coco Chanel still commands the most attention (five movies and one Broadway musical) because she was a revolutionary designer, a supreme entrepreneur and a sexual adventuress. Vreeland, in contrast, was anything but a beauty and was always compared unfavorably with her sister Alexandra. An adoring wife, she was never touched by scandal. Neither was she rich, paid no more than $18,000 a year while responsible, successively, for the two major American fashion magazines, Harper’s Bazaar (1937-1962) and Vogue (1962-1971).
Neither is Vreeland an anticipation of Miranda Priestly, the imperious, emotionally sadistic fashion editor played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), universally thought to be based on Anna Wintour, current martinet of Vogue. True, Vreeland’s wit could bite. She says of legendary agent Swifty Lazar: “He’s bald, one foot fall, and a terrible man.” Then she adds quickly, “and I just like him very much.”
More often she is in awe of the people she covered, especially designers, and their work. (“In a Balenciaga you were the only woman in the world—no other woman existed.”) There’s a marked absence of back-biting, and her generous praise extends to other divas, including Helena Rubinstein and even Coco Chanel.
The two-act, nearly two-hour comedy-drama is set in 1971, right after Vreeland had been fired from Vogue and didn’t know what she was going to do with the rest of her life. Despite her vibrant, red and black Park Avenue apartment (a legacy of her late banker husband), Vreeland is short on the amount of cash needed to pay for delivered flowers. For a while we are unsure what has happened because she refuses to read a catty New York Post item titled, “Brother, Can You Spare a Diadem?” Eventually, her reluctant reading of the news story fills in the ignominious facts she does not wish to tell us herself. Vreeland might have previously thought she was an icon of confidence, but this was an ego-squashing blow.
Full Gallop, after all, is not a lesson in fashion journalism but rather a high-fashioned dramatic entertainment. The wide-ranging emotional journeys Vreeland must take demand a bravura performance from a tall, elegant actress of a certain age. Co-playwright Mary Louise Wilson cast herself in the role when it opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1996, to considerable acclaim.
In Ithaca, three-time Tony Award nominee Dee Hoty, built like a ballerina, delivers a compelling mixture of irony, comedy and pathos in the Hangar production. She really knows how to get the snap out of Vreeland’s lines, but much of her performance comes from dance and mime. This fits: The historical Vreeland won her job with Harper’s Bazaar by dazzling with her footwork in a tango. Director Peter Flynn keeps Hoty in such expressive motion that one could follow this highly verbal play even without hearing the words.
Not only the tango. Hoty’s Vreeland also impersonates most credibly the Dying Swan from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
Now, to those words. As a public figure and a journalist, Vreeland had thousands of opportunities to be quoted so that her off-the-cuff inspirations never had to suffer a flight to the void. Additionally, she collected some of her best in her autobiography, D.V. (1984), edited by George Plimpton. People who have never had the joy of perusing it may remember that the Patrick Swayze character (Vida Boheme) gives it to a thrift-store clerk in the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, instructing him to commit sections to memory. Not bad advice to an aspiring playwright.
The only implausible aspect of Full Gallop is the notion that Vreeland could have come up with all of them for a single visitor on one night when she was nearing 70. Great wits, like professional baseball players, are in top form when they’re hitting only 33 percent of the time.
Part of Vreeland’s technique was to appear frivolous when saying something penetrating about a serious matter, an approach she shares with Oscar Wilde. She had never met Adolf Hitler, even though Munich was one of her favorite cities. The synchronized goose-stepping of Nazi soldiers put her off. With greater disgust she remembers seeing Der F'hrer while looking down from an opera box: “That mustache was . . . (searching for the right word) unbelievable!” Similarly, in recounting the suicide of an acquaintance, a woman who jumped from the balcony of a tall building, Vreeland buries her empathy in praise of the victim’s sense of style in dressing for such a violent exit.
Some of Vreeland’s most arresting lines aren’t meant to be funny but aspire to a kind of gnomic poetry. Consider, “Pink is the navy blue of India,” or her praise for blue jeans: “The greatest invention since the gondola.” Those can’t be translated into flat-footed prose, but we know what she means.
All during the action Vreeland is fielding telephone calls in hopes of pulling herself out of her despond. Her son Tim on the West Coast is the most attentive. In unsubtle foreshadowing she begins to talk about how art treasures should be encountered in a museum: “I don’t want to be educated. I wanted to be drowned in beauty.” This leads to the call to raise her from the doldrums, to become consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, her most lasting achievement.
Scenic designer Michael Krass fulfills Vreeland’s description of her red and black apartment as “a garden—but a garden in hell.” The space is emphatically lighted by Thom Weaver. And Emma Scholl’s costume rises to Vreeland’s exacting taste.
As dame Diana said herself, “The only real elegance is in the mind.
If you’ve got that, the rest really comes from it.”
This production runs through Saturday, Aug. 11. See Times Table for information.