By: Alix Cohen
Mister Halston- Entertaining and Evocative
November 12, 2023: Roy Halston Frowick (1932-1990) learned to sew from his Iowan grandmother, creating hats and altering clothes for his mother and sister. In Chicago he became milliner to the well heeled and famous. It was here Roy morphed into the eponymous Halston. The young man moved to New York, became co-designer at Lily Daché, and then head of Bergdorf Goodman’s salon. When hats fell out of fashion, he began designing women’s wear.
As well known for extravagant personality and the company he kept as the minimalist fashion he created “I got rid of…all of the extra details that didn’t work—bows that didn’t tie, buttons that didn’t button, zippers that didn’t zip…” Halston was the epitome of front page, disco excess.
It’s 1987. In his East 63rd street apartment, the currently reclusive Halston (Ken Barnett) awaits an interview that will lead to a seminal New York Times article which began “HALSTON, THE LEGENDARY fashion designer, sits in the two-story living room of his multimillion-dollar town house, his face slicked with bronzing gel… He has an air of the grand seigneur, an insistence that only the most expensive and exquisite things surround him..” (Lisa Belkin) Fussing and impatient, always in control, the protagonist sets a scene.
An invisible journalist is delivered guidelines which Halston himself will ignore, offering (the author’s) a multifaceted, insightful picture. “Today we set the record right!” he says firmly smiling. “Style is the expression of personal emotion. You’re only as good as the people you dress. I made people believe in American style. That’s good! Write that.”
Over the course of what turns out to be a pivotal afternoon, interrupted by phone calls, Halson takes us from being “a tall, faggy boy” recognizing affinities to designing hats for Jackie Kennedy (who had the same hat size as the designer), Kim Novak, Gloria Swanson, and Brooke Astor; then dressing Bianca Jagger, Diana Vreeland, and, of course, dear friend Liza Minnelli. When Bergdorf’s questioned his moving from millinery to apparel, Halson pointed out Chanel started that way. The Halstonettes, his models, not only included African
Americans, but were perhaps the first to actively negotiate the runway, not just walk.
We hear about friend Andy Warhol, tempestuous jewelry designer Elsa Peretti whom Halson introduced to Tiffany’s (he acts out a wonderful anecdote), and his astonished introduction to a brand new Studio54, the description of which is both authentic and poetic. Business takes us from Bergdorf’s to a Madison Avenue boutique to a floor-to-ceiling windowed aerie in Olympic Tower filled with the color red and white orchids nicknamed “Mount Olympus.” A description of what he wants from the (cash cow) perfume, is gorgeous and, I’m told, by a fragrance executive, quite real.
At no point does narrative feel less than personal. Nor, surprisingly, are we aware of the amount of information disseminated in such a short time. Even non-sequential recollections make sense. Intermittently smoking, making himself successive drinks, and excusing himself to snort coke enhance characterization. Direction (Kimberly Senior) is specific. The protagonist doesn’t wander around without motivation. (He could be a little clearer as to where the journalist is when addressing him.) Senior additionally paces the show just right.
Halston is repeatedly telephoned by his lawyer trying in vain to save the iconic name from a misguided deal with JC Penney. Calls from Liza find him suddenly all-in warm. Vulnerability is palpable. There are also several calls from Halston’s lover, Victor, a beautiful boy “filled with some secret, violent, hurt and rage” of whom he’s “terrified, by whom he’s “thrilled.”
Things don’t end well for the designer, but the audience has as splendid time. Raffael Pacitti’s portrait is well researched, sympathetic (not cloying), and insightful.
Ken Barnett is marvelous. His posture and movement reflect Halston’s affected patrician persona. Mercurially chiding the interviewer, revealing that which he says he shouldn’t, trying to mask both infirmity (coughing is pitch perfect) and terror at legal proceedings, the actor is fluent. Barnett listens and reacts so clearly during phone calls, we might be hearing the caller. After effects start in cheery denial, but grow less and less able to hide as the afternoon wanes. We the air go out of his stylized bombast.
The detail of this presentation, even on a low budget, included exactly the right armchair, a credible bar and red telephone as well as evocative costuming.
Mister Halston by Raffael Pacitti
Featuring Ken Barnett
Directed by Kimberly Senior
ADDITIONAL DATES: Wed Nov 15 2pm, Fri Nov 17 8:30 pm, Sat Nov 18 8:30 pm
United Solo Theater Row 410 West 42nd Street
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