Impressions a la Mode

In the GableStage production of Full Gallop, actress Judith Delgado reaches out and grabs the audience by the lapels. It's a production that would simply thrill Diana Vreeland, whose obsession with clothing infuses this one-woman show just as her hyperbole-driven fashion sensibility filled the pages of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue magazines for four decades. Never mind if individual theatergoers aren't actually wearing lapels. Delgado's muscular delivery lifts us out of our chairs and plops us down -- in our imaginations, anyway -- smack in the middle of Vreeland's Manhattan living room, circa 1971.

And what a living room it is. Vreeland insists that one of her chairs -- over which a leopard-print throw has been casually slung -- resembles celebrated New York hostess Elsa Maxwell. But the audience is too busy taking in the Chinese red-satin upholstery, the fire engine-red lilies, and the cherry red drapes of Lyle Baskin's set, not to mention the two great swaths of red rouge on Vreeland's cheeks, to make comparisons. "I want this room in flames," the fashion doyen proclaims. On fire it is, with the star of the show an agitated wick in its center, burning brighter than this three-year-old show deserves. Vreeland's life story-turned-play won Drama Desk and Obie awards for creators Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson in 1996, when Wilson starred in it. And the national tour, with Elizabeth Ashley, was just here (at the Parker Playhouse) last year, for Pete's sake.

Nonetheless it's back, and I'm not sorry. Delgado is no stranger to South Florida audiences. She's a Carbonell-winning actress who's also the education director for the Coconut Grove Playhouse and star of last season's megahit Goodbye, My Friduchita. (Gallop is her first foray on GableStage.) Vreeland, on the other hand, is still something of a stranger, even as her ghost haunts the outrageous decor of South Beach clubs.

A fixture in the fashion world until her unceremonious dismissal from Vogue in 1971 (she died in 1989), Vreeland's name is probably not known to the average runway model or ambitious fashion photographer anymore. Indeed the woman who invented the notion of Beautiful People would surely confuse those poor Washington Avenue waifs. Vreeland had European sophistication (she and her husband Reid came to the States in the late '30s just as war broke out), as well as learned ties to earlier decades. (In the show she waxes orgasmic over men's clothes from the Regency Period.)

As a fashion phenom, Vreeland is beyond compare. Few people have put their fingerprints on international style so indelibly. Vreeland's appeal is that she really didn't care what other people thought. She reacted to the world without filters or inhibitions. She was gifted not only with a discerning eye but also with a flair for language. Her famous statement "Pink is the navy blue of India" is not only a brilliant observation, it's painfully well put. Vreeland was the model for the fashion editor character in the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, the one who commands her staff to "think pink." She once proclaimed that "blue jeans are the greatest invention since the gondola."

As a subject for biography, Vreeland is even juicier. As she explains in Full Gallop (which was based partly on her 1984 autobiography, D.V.), she was "discovered" at a cocktail party and invited to become editor of Harper's Bazaar, even though "I'd never been in an office before." (Actually she'd been writing a Harper's column for several years.) As presented in the show, which is set entirely in Vreeland's apartment and takes place on the day that she returned from a four-month holiday in Europe to recover from the loss of her Vogue job, Vreeland's life is a turbulent mix of over-the-top experiences and events, which she then often elaborated even more.

For example, a tale she tells about Coco Chanel and Helena Rubinstein staring each other down in her apartment is probably true. Whereas an anecdote about a tense time in a Paris movie theater -- she sat clutching a armrest only to realize, at movie's end, that she was actually grasping the head of Josephine Baker's pet cheetah -- is surely apocryphal. Vreeland knew just how far she could stretch the truth.

In fact her motto as fashion editor underscores the way she lived her life: "Give 'em what they never knew they wanted."

As one-woman shows go, Full Gallop is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the character is choice. Delgado, a genius at transforming herself, clearly enjoys the histrionic terrain of the role. Dressed in a black pantsuit and white ivory bangles -- and is that a tiger's tooth on the gold chain? -- she moves through the living-room set like... well, like she owns the place. (Even the actress' elegant, oversize hands conspire to become a perfect physical match for Vreeland's elegant, larger-than-life personality.) The GableStage space, with its 138 seats, is exactly right for the intimate tone of the show. And Delgado is working here with director Joseph Adler, another topnotch South Florida talent. Personally I would have bought a ticket just to eavesdrop on the rehearsal process.

Full Gallop has Vreeland address us directly, no apology. Given the editor's megalomaniac personality, it's not hard to imagine that she just might have had a little theater auditorium off one side of her living room. Throughout the show Vreeland communicates with her maid Yvonne (Mimi Lutz), who's not seen on stage; we only hear her voice over the apartment's intercom system. The trajectory of the show follows Vreeland's ever-fizzling attempt to put on a dinner party, as guests cancel (or just disappear, in one case) and groceries are hard to come by at the last minute.

On the other hand, the show holds few surprises. We all know Vreeland got back up on the horse that was her career and took off, full gallop. (She went on to become consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan. Meanwhile, Grace Mirabella replaced her at Vogue.) She's not a tragic figure in any respect, certainly not like the Truman Capote of Tru, who spends Christmas Eve alone. We never believe that Diana Vreeland is not going to survive her disastrous dinner party, nor that, even after getting her pink slip from Conde Nast, she's parting with her last dime.

Because there's not much at stake, Full Gallop is a tame ride. To her credit Delgado resists milking for melodrama the show's few momentary dips into real emotion. Vreeland's façade softens only once or twice, when she talks about the love she had for her husband. We sense that her marriage is one area of her life in which Vreeland didn't exaggerate. She really was in love every day. When she describes Reid dying of cancer, Delgado lets Vreeland's mask slip a nearly imperceptible inch or two. Her face quivers and then she moves on. She's captivating. Better yet she makes Vreeland much more than the sum of her fabulous epigrams, which is exactly how Diana Vreeland would have styled herself.

Full Gallop.
Written by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson. Directed by Joseph Adler. Starring Judith Delgado and Mimi Lutz. Through May 30. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables, 305-445-1119.

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Robin Dougherty