Vivacious With a Capital 'V'

Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

Brenda Vaccaro explodes into L'Orangerie, shattering the restaurant's stately hush.

Sitting down to late-afternoon tea and sweets, she carries on a rapid-fire conversation at a volume just slightly quieter than your average car alarm. Her husky voice bounces off the candle globes, skitters across the tile floors and, in all likelihood, penetrates the front doors to go roaring off along La Cienega Boulevard. She laughs so long and hard that she must pound the table for mercy, sending china jumping and silverware dancing.

Waiters timidly approach her table; the maitre d' looks nervous.

Yet the actress makes no effort to tone down, because, for the moment, there are no other diners. If she finishes before le beau monde arrives for dinner, the restaurant stands a slim chance of preserving its storied reputation.

"I'll tell you one thing about me, I'm a pretty straight shooter," Vaccaro says, explaining how she's like Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor and trendsetter she portrays in "Full Gallop," which opens March 30 at the Coronet Theatre. "I say it the way it is, and I think she did, too. She was honest and straightforward. There was no beatin' around the bush with her."

Vaccaro, 58, comes to "Full Gallop" with a resume that includes three fast-succession Tony nominations in the '60s ("Cactus Flower," "How Now, Dow Jones," "The Goodbye People") and some memorable film appearances (the Madison Avenue type who picks up Jon Voight in "Midnight Cowboy" in 1969, and an unabashed man chaser in "Jacqueline Susann's 'Once Is Not Enough' " in 1975, which earned her a best supporting actress Oscar nomination). Though she has been less visible in recent years, she made a notable appearance as Barbra Streisand's best friend in the 1996 movie "The Mirror Has Two Faces."

She holds forth at L'Orangerie after finishing the day's rehearsal of "Full Gallop" down the street at the Coronet. It has been exhausting, nail-biting work: Vreeland is the sole character, so Vaccaro must be prepared to hold the stage for the entire two-act, hour-and-40-minute show--for eight performances a week.

In a rare moment of meekness, Vaccaro makes a face as piteous as the little girl in "Les Miserables" advertisements and confesses: "Oh, honey, it's so nerve-racking. Oh, God. It's a lot to ask of a memory."

In one long torrent, she exhales, "I'm so scared how do I get out of this I'm so nervous," then collapses sideways on the banquette.

Still more daunting, Vaccaro must fill the pumps vacated by Mary Louise Wilson, who wrote the show with Mark Hampton and accumulated rapturous reviews when she performed it in San Diego and off-Broadway in New York.

Wilson says by telephone from New York that she isn't performing "Full Gallop" in L.A. because she "wanted to do something different" and is currently portraying Fraulein Schneider in the Broadway revival of "Cabaret."

She recommended Vaccaro for "Full Gallop" because she's a "subtle comedic genius." What's more, "she's glamorous and she's idiosyncratic, very individual. There's nobody like her, which was certainly true of Vreeland."

The actresses performed together on Broadway when Vaccaro replaced Rita Moreno in Neil Simon's mid-'80s rewrite of "The Odd Couple." Vaccaro played Olive (the original's Oscar), and Wilson played the mismatched roommates' cop buddy.

Vaccaro, Wilson concludes, is "the best possible choice" to play Vreeland.

Director Nicholas Martin agrees. "Brenda has the appetite for this part," he says. "She's an enormously strong personality, and a very smart one. She has chic and toughness and tenderness in equal measures."

As fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar and then editor in chief at Vogue, Vreeland helped to teach women of the 1940s, '50s and '60s to be alluring yet confident and independent. Possessed of an outsize personality and an unconventional sense of style, she was often misunderstood. Her provocative epigrams ("Why don't you turn your old ermine coat into a bathrobe?") often got more attention than her more reasoned ones ("You don't have to be born beautiful to be wildly attractive").

"Full Gallop" takes place in 1971, shortly after a late-60ish Vreeland--suddenly considered passe--has been dumped by Vogue. Striving to put her career back on track, she organizes a dinner party in her Park Avenue apartment. Addressing the audience as her guests, she strides about the place, reminiscing about her career and making pointed observations about style.

"We owe a debt to her," says Vaccaro, who has pulled herself upright in her seat again, "because she pinned down a feminine sense of oneself that isn't so easily found."

Vaccaro has voraciously studied the late fashion maven, having read such sources as Vreeland's 1984 autobiography, "DV," and interviewed people who knew her.

Echoing her character, Vaccaro says that style is "daily air. It defines the way you speak, the way you walk--everything about you. I don't think style is fashion, necessarily; it's in the persona.

"I want beautiful," Vaccaro adds, defining her own idea of style. "I don't want hip. I want something gorgeous."

Vaccaro tends to accent her sentences with "my darlings," punctuate them with slashes of red fingernails and--as a postscript--add high-pitched "hee-hee's." She leans halfway across the table as she talks, finally wedging herself into the space between her table and the next.

Asked whether present-day America has any Vreelands, Vaccaro is--for the first time--stumped for something to say. "So flamboyant? So daring? Hmmmm. Hmmmm. Hmmm."

Martha Stewart, perhaps? Vaccaro responds to this suggestion with a snort. "Good God, napkins and food? Oh, God, no. Oh, Jesus. I think she's so boring, I can't even. . . . Oh, God. Don't tell me how to put a napkin on my plate. Don't tell me how to put cloves in a lemon, and then put a ribbon around it, and then pay her $40 million for it. I resent her; she took up every damned space in the duck pond.

"Hee-hee-hee-heeeeee."

Um, Madonna? "Oh, that's all PR, isn't it? Hairdos and PR. And babies."

Vaccaro waves her French-born husband, Guy Hector, over to the table. Hector, a boyishly handsome 39, once ran a clothing boutique on Santa Monica's Montana Avenue and is now his wife's manager. They have been married almost 13 years.

"Guy taught me all the lines" in "Full Gallop," Vaccaro says. "If it wasn't for Guy with the old whip--pa-chew," she says, imitating a whip crack. He laughs.

He describes her as "a tornado" and says he has always been attracted to her verve. "How many people have that kind of energy?" he asks. "I see myself getting older, and I don't see her changing."

Though Vaccaro lives in Los Angeles, she's not a regular on its stages. Back in 1991, she understudied Glenn Close (though never had a chance to substitute for her) in the James L. Brooks-directed production of "Brooklyn Laundry," also at the Coronet. Her last local appearance was in 1993 in Neil Simon's "Jake's Women" in the Ahmanson at the Doolittle series, in which she reprised her Broadway portrayal of the title character's sister.

She was to have played an overbearing aunt in the Mark Taper Forum's production of "Nine Armenians" last summer, but during rehearsals, director Gordon Davidson asked the play's author to take over the role. Now, as then, Vaccaro declines to discuss what happened.

On television, Vaccaro has been showing up in memorable guest-starring roles (not to mention infomercials). On a 1990 episode of NBC's "The Golden Girls," she played Bea Arthur's sister-in-law, for which she received an Emmy nomination. (She'd won an Emmy--for best supporting actress in a variety special--in 1974 for "The Shape of Things.") In a 1995 installment of NBC's "Friends," she played Matt LeBlanc's mom, and on a 1997 episode of Fox's "Ally McBeal," she portrayed a Jewish woman whose remarriage is hampered because her previous husband--lying in a coma--hasn't given the rabbi his OK.

She admits that, in recent years, she hasn't been as obsessively focused on her career as she once was. Instead, she has been relaxing into life--having fun traveling and just spending time with her husband.

"I always say to my husband, 'Darling, let's live life.' " She slams a fist on the table. " 'Let's go on this trip. The money will follow. It'll come. We'll pay for it.' And he always looks at me like I've lost my mind.

"You've got to go out and meet life head on, and then everything else falls into place. If you hang around and you're always afraid, nothing happens. You're just afraid."

*

"FULL GALLOP," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd. Dates: Opens March 30, 7 p.m. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m.Tickets on sale for performances through May 24. Prices: $38-$42.50. Phone: (310) 657-7377, (213) 365-3500.

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