Fashion Queen

From the moment she strides through the red-curtained setting that represents Diana Vreeland's Manhattan residence, Deborah Persoff exudes the ebullience that one typically senses only from established performers appearing in test-marketed star vehicles. Suffused with a regal pride that verges on but never becomes haughtiness, Persoff cuts a commanding figure as the legendary Vogue editor while spouting pithy fashion statements with fiendish precision and delight. Despite the inherent weaknesses in Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson's Full Gallop, or perhaps because of them, Persoff and director Chip Walton seamlessly complement each other's strengths to offer up an enchanting evening of style, wit, whimsy and, above all, steely sophistication.

Hampton and Wilson's 100-minute play, which was produced off-Broadway in 1995 starring the irrepressible Wilson, is being presented at the Acoma Center by the Curious Theatre Company. Although it helps to be familiar with Vreeland's seemingly endless list of friends and enemies (there's a glossary in the program), Persoff's delicately shaded descriptions beautifully evoke the unfortunate souls that Diana scrutinized -- especially following her 1971 dismissal from Vogue, an incident that occurs just prior to the start of the one-woman show.

Little more need be said about movers and shakers such as (in)famous show-business agent Swifty Lazar, for instance, than when Persoff declares, "He's bald, one foot tall and a terrible man" -- and then punctuates her dead-on summation with a trace of coquettish charm as she purrs, "But I just like him very much." And Persoff nicely articulates Diana's ability to execute conversational leaps with astonishing and sometimes confounding agility. While mesmerizing the audience with her wistful, lyrical remembrance of dancer Josephine Baker's eccentricities (she sometimes appeared in public with her pet cheetah or a leashed gaggle of swans in tow), Persoff slowly sinks into the cushions of a couch, zeroes in on a pillow's crumpled corner and gurgles, "God, I miss fringe."

Midway through Act One, Persoff's masterful navigation from elegance to decadence to frivolity becomes a sojourn into poignancy when she calmly recounts the last days that Diana spent with her dying husband. Gathering a sprig of flowers in her arms and gently swaying to a trumpet player's jazzy interpretation of the second movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, Persoff's hitherto impregnable facade doesn't abruptly crumble so much as quietly give way to an ineffable tenderness that, one suddenly realizes, has been there all along. She's equally eloquent when relating a tale about the Queen of Hungary, who, profusely bleeding from an attack to her torso, kept putting one foot in front of the other in order to maintain some semblance of dignity for the sake of her subjects: Since she was tightly corseted, no one could see the effects of her wounds -- an apt image for the slings and arrows that Vreeland publicly weathered during her five-decade reign as monarch of the fashion world.

Persoff shines when delivering several uniquely concocted one-liners that became known as "Vreelandisms." Never forced or overdone yet always frightfully succinct, she relishes in telling theatergoers about Diana's meeting with Hitler, a momentous encounter that she sums up by dryly noting that his mustache "was just wrong." When it comes to talking about color, she plunges into a rapturous discussion of hues ("Red is the great clarifier") while lamenting the passing of greige, "a combination of gray and beige you never see anymore." And rather than intone Diana's aphorisms as if she were reading them straight out of her memoir, D.V., Persoff fresh-mints the statements as if each were an old friend paying a too-infrequent visit.

Apart from a running though petty concern about her impending dinner party or a decision about whether she'll take an intriguing job offer, there's not much overall action to unify the many scenes and anecdotes. And Persoff's slight tendency to emphasize Diana's persona before, and not after, the fall occasionally turns the evening into an affectionate testimonial as opposed to a conflict-driven event.

But her firm grasp of the material, which is embellished throughout by director Walton's artful touches and designer William Temple Davis's unobtrusive lighting design, amounts to an impressive accomplishment. Indeed, as Persoff moves about the stage with near-balletic flair, it becomes clear that her mother's belief that Diana lacked natural beauty was, on the whole, a monumentally superficial observation.

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Jim Lillie

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