Full Gallop’s set, like Vreeland’s apartment, in red on red in red, resembled “a garden from hell.”
  • Full Gallop’s set, like Vreeland’s apartment, in red on red in red, resembled “a garden from hell.”
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Full Gallop

There’s an eerie alliance right now in local theater. Two plays mirror each other so much they’re almost joined at the hip. Full Gallop at the Old Globe premiered January 11, 1995, at the Old Globe: Ion Theatre’s Master Class premiered March 1, 1995, at the Philadelphia Theatre.

Both plays are about divas: Maria Callas, the great singer, and Diana Vreeland, the “Empress of Fashion.” Both take place in New York — in 1971! Both women wear all black, their black hair tugged straight back from the forehead. And both are in crisis: Callas has lost her lover, Aristotle Onasis, and is losing her voice; Vreeland lost her job at Vogue magazine, where she was editor-in-chief and the international arbiter of fashion. Both are larger than life. Neither will go gently into obscurity.

Callas gives a “master class” on singing to students at Juilliard. In effect, while making arrangements for a posh dinner she can’t afford, Vreeland conducts a master class on style.

For the first 30 years of her life, Vreeland says, she “never lifted a finger” (that’s if you don’t count the lingerie business she operated in London). She and her husband, Thomas Reed Vreeland, traveled extensively (“the best thing about London,” she wrote, “is Paris!”). She was a voracious reader and loved to read out loud: “That was the charm of it — when you’ve heard the word it means so much more than if you’ve only seen it.”

At the same time, she was a voracious observer. Like Callas, she sought the details within the details. She saw — and saw through. And like Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde, she could sum up an object or an event in an aphorism, including her motto: “There’s only one thing in life, and that’s the continual renewal of inspiration.”

Theatrical biographies come in two kinds. The most common, and most boring, is the Wikipedia School: follow the life of the subject step by step: she did this, and if it wasn’t fascinating, then she did that. The other — Master Class, the La Jolla Playhouse’s recent Blueprints to Freedom, and Full Gallop among them — plunks the subject in a major crisis and has them respond. This approach reveals “character” in action on the deepest of levels. And, in the above named plays, an indomitable spirit.

Full Gallop could refer to Sean Fanning’s extraordinary set for the Old Globe. It’s the living room of Vreeland’s famous apartment at 550 Park Avenue, where she entertained the likes of Cole Porter and Cecil Beaton. And it’s all in red — red on red in red — from the halo of chintz bunting above, to the divan center stage, and the Persian carpet. Typical of Vreeland’s free-spirited taste: she told decorator Billy Baldwin she wanted “the place to look like a garden, but a garden from hell.” Also typical Vreeland, no two reds are the same. They bleed into each other.

Full Gallop could also refer to Vreeland’s hyperactive mind. She’s back from four months in Europe. She’s “over it,” she says about losing her literary throne at Vogue. “I’ve moved on.” Then maybe she’s perennially nervous because she’s in near-constant motion. She smokes filterless Lucky Strikes, screens her calls on a touch phone (thanks to Yvonne, her housekeeper answering first), plans for the future, and cannot, for the life of her, figure out why that covered chair off to the side looks so dreadfully wrong. She adores artifice, she says, even vulgarity (“bad taste is better than none”). Every time she spots that chair, her body jolts into shock.

She’s had a job offer. Ted Rousseau of the Metropolitan Museum wants her to run the Costume Institute (which she rejects now, but will later take and cap her career). Typical of the play, and Vreeland’s associative mind, so many names fly past, you need a scorecard: before he was curator of the Met, for example, Ted Rousseau was one of the “Monuments Men” who recovered precious works of art the Nazis stole in WWII.

Among the many wonders of Mercedes Ruehl’s outstanding performance at the Globe: as she faces her crisis, Vreeland is alone on stage: existentially alone — soliloquy-alone. At the same time, Ruehl develops an engaging, one-to-one rapport with the audience. These are distinct worlds, maybe even a flaw in the play, yet she binds them brilliantly. She talks, confides, confesses as if to you alone. At one point even worries about sightlines.

Sometimes she walks with a jerky motion, as if on stilts, and throws her head back. Her gestures match Vreeland’s mind: spontaneous non sequiturs, as if beyond control, and “senior moments” where a word or a name flits just out of reach. Ruehl performs even these clumsy moments with elegance. We see the Ugly Duckling (they say she could be a real pistol) and the Swan in the same motion. Mark Mitchell’s chic costume adds to the image. He suspends a waxing (waning?) moon from her neck — or is it a fang?

In one of my favorite books, The Things We See Indoors and Out (1947, and decades out of print), Alan Jarvis says: “We tend always to eat, and to look at, only the familiar things, and our palates and eyes become dulled, and new stimuli either frighten or offend us.”

Vreeland wrote a column called “Why Don’t You.” In each she recommended a leap for the reader (like turning an old ermine coat into a bathrobe). She spent her entire career trying to coax style from docility: “You gotta have style. It helps you get up in the morning. It’s a way of life. Without it you’re nobody. And I’m not talking about a lot of clothes.”

Full Gallop, by Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson

Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park

Directed by Andrew Russell; cast: Mercedes Ruehl; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Mark Mitchell; lighting, Robert J. Aquilar; sound, Matt Starritt

Playing through October 25; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. 619-234-5623. theoldglobe.org

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