Capsule Stage Reviews: September 4, 2014

Full Gallop Let's talk D.V. That would be Diana Vreeland, or Dee-ahh-na, for those of you not in the loop. For decades she was the reigning monarch of fashion, first as columnist and stylish greyhound at Harper's Bazaar, then as editor-in-chief of Vogue, later as curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute in New York City. She set trends, brought style to the masses, and generally dictated who or what would become household names on that rarefied street known as Fashion Avenue. With her signature idiosyncratic personality, she was her own one-woman show, so it's appropriate that she's entirely center stage in Mark Hampton and Mary Louise Wilson's Full Gallop (1995). But like any page from Vogue, the play is extremely stylish, immensely colorful and just as thin. Miss Vreeland (Sally Edmundson in delicious diva mode) — she would blanch to be called Ms. — has been unceremoniously sacked from her throne at Vogue. She is no longer in fashion, she's been told; the world has moved on. Undeterred, she arranges a dinner party in hopes of getting funds for some unspecified project: book, new magazine, anything to pay the many unpaid bills. She wrestles the latest invoice into a beautiful little coffer on her desk. She has to push down to make room for it. As if we're in the room with her, she addresses the audience directly. Flowers are everywhere. "Is it too much," she asks, peering around the room as if copy-editing it, "or not enough?" Immediately she's off on a riff about taste and vulgarity. "I'm a great believer in vulgarity. No taste is what I'm against!" In a running gag, which only gets funnier as it goes along, she interacts with her nonchalant French maid (Maria Edmundson) via intercom, ordering dinner, sending her out for cigarettes and running interference as her friends telephone to offer condolences for the New York Post's hatchet job about her firing at Vogue. In a series of reminiscences, stream-of-consciousness and gossip, Vreeland entertains while pontificating on her likes and dislikes, a bit of her autobiography, and evidence of her life force and ability to reinvent herself when times get tough. When in doubt, fake it, is her mantra. She's one resilient broad, dropping bold-faced names, Wilde-esque epigrams and amusing anecdotes like next season's hemlines. It's terribly classy, if somewhat soignée, but you can't beat the story of the eccentric English businessman who dressed his three pet gorillas in overcoats and bowler hats and took a spin around London. If you're of a certain age, you'll catch all the dishy references to Elsa Maxwell, Josephine Baker, Leon Bakst, Anna Pavlova, the Duke of Windsor. If you're someone who wears a T-shirt and jeans to the theater, you might find yourself baffled at the superficiality of it all. But you won't be put off by Miss Edmundson, who plays this fashion doyenne to perfection. More handsome than Vreeland ever was, Edmundson catches her spirit with tremendous élan. Reed-thin, she looks smashing in her all-black ensemble. Great swathes of rouge run up her cheeks like a model's runway, an ivory bauble the size of a mastodon's molar dangles around her neck, and her jet black hair is coiffed à la geisha. She's her own Kabuki theater. A consummate artist, Edmundson says most even when she says very little. This is one of her signature roles and should not be missed. Jodi Bobrovsky's delicious set shouldn't be missed, either. In photo-realism, the master designer has re-created Vreeland's eye-catching NY apartment with its Chinese-red paisley wallpaper, zebra rugs, animal print cushions, low lamps and expensive knickknacks galore. It's elegant, over-the-top and cozy all at the same time. Even the program cover is Chinese red. Wonderful. How can you not admire Vreeland (or at least wonder in amazement), who ironed her dollar bills and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich washed down with a glass of scotch. With Edmundson firmly at the reins, Full Gallop has panache for days. Through September 14. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123. — DLG

The Old Friends If you're a fan of Turner Classic Movies, I probably don't have to remind you of the joyous bitch fest that is Old Acquaintance (1943), adapted from the successful John Van Druten play. Remember dueling screen divas Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins as dueling literary rivals? They also are rivals in love, a lifetime battle between old friends. I'm not sure if playwright Horton Foote, a literary sensation all his own, ever watched that Warner Bros. weepie, but I wouldn't be surprised. Davis, or the fossilized characterization she'd morph into late in her career, makes an appearance, although here she's called Gertrude Hayhurst Sylvester Ratliff and is portrayed most astonishingly by Broadway legend Betty Buckley (from Cats, in particular, for which she introduced "Memories" and won a Tony). Buckley runs away with the show as the drunkest woman onstage, next to Edward Albee's Martha, the mother of all drunks in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She prowls the stage, getting more ripped by the glass, and expels her inner demons with the force of Vesuvius. She couldn't care less whom she scalds. Crass, loud, vulgar, she's the richest person in Harrison, Texas, and makes damned sure everybody knows it. She loves milquetoast Howard (Cotter Smith, reprising his role from the off-Broadway production), the brother of her late husband and manager of her vast empire, but treats him like a hired hand. Hungover in the morning and shuttered away in her swag-bedecked boudoir like Gloria Swanson in one of Cecil B. DeMille's silent-movie marital extravaganzas, she's contrite and whiny, but only for a moment. Before you can say Jack Daniel's, she turns gorgon, and the play revives with a rush. Without Buckley's fiery comic presence, Foote's play would be drab indeed. The other colorful and resuscitating character is Julia (Veanne Cox, in her Alley debut.) Julia is not an "old friend," but Gertrude's longtime nemesis, the daughter of family matriarch Miss Mamie (Annalee Jefferies, who's making her Alley return after a seven-year absence). In Foote's interlocking genealogy, Julia has married much older Albert Price (the incomparable Jeffrey Bean, who's wasted in this role but does more with it than anyone I can think of). She, too, is rich and entitled. In the immortal description spat out by a drunken Gertrude, Julia is "a whore." Julia hates her life, hates her husband and sleeps around as much as possible, which makes humiliated Albert hate his life, hate his wife, hate his mother-in-law and keep drinking. Julia's recent conquest is eager hunk Tom (Jay Sullivan, who's given nothing to do but look good and mix drinks), soon to be appropriated by Gertrude with her siren song of unlimited opportunities. Cox brings an irrepressible life force into Foote's gentility, giving her lines the crisp diction of someone who knows her way around a wife-swapping party. She's deliciously off-color. In David C. Woolard's provocative '60s costumes, Cox is a dream in orange organza or skintight turquoise sheath. With her astringent delivery, coiffed ginger hairdo and panther sexiness, she's a true cougar. Where exactly did she come from, a Sondheim musical or a Dallas rerun? But this play isn't about Gertrude or Julia; it's about sensible and intelligent Sibyl (Hallie Foote, the playwright's daughter, an acclaimed actress and custodian of his legacy), the only sober adult in this nest of drunken vipers. Married to Mamie's son Hugo, she's been away 30 years, living with the wildcatter she married when true love Howard turned to the dark side and fell for Gertrude. Widowed and destitute, she's returned to her childhood home to see what's happened to unrequited love Howard. Playwright Foote is too circumspect a Southern gentleman to lay this out or bother to fill in the dramatic gaps. Instead he gives us hazy reminiscences and sweet nothings in our ear. (We know little about any of these people.) Sibyl seems to be in this play to make the other characters look exceptionally bad. Unfortunately, we want more of the wicked. For an esteemed dramatist who has earned multiple awards from Hollywood, Broadway and the Pulitzer committee, Old Friends is secondhand at best. Glimpses of his autumnal power slice through — the image of Miss Mamie, and later Sibyl, standing at the window enveloped in designer Rui Rita's fading twilight has more nostalgic sweep than all the forced melodrama. There are no surprises, no great revelations, no aha moments that might send shivers. We know exactly where this play is headed. Through September 7. Wortham Theatre, University of Houston, 4116 Elgin. 713-220-5700. — DLG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover