Tallulah Bankhead: gravel- voiced legend of theater, rapier wit, outlandish narcissist and bon vivant who over-indulged in men, women, booze and drugs.
Playing the actress near the end of her life, Valerie Harper puts a bold check mark in all those boxes.
But who knew Tallulah was also . . . an amateur psychotherapist? For that surprising insight, we have to thank playwright Matthew Lombardo, whose clunky, loopy "Looped" opened last night on Broadway.
The show takes place during a single harrowing day in 1965, when Tallulah goes to a Los Angeles studio to re-record a single sentence for "Die! Die! My Darling!" -- a low-rent horror movie that would turn out to be her last.
But whereas Meryl Streep would have nailed it in one take and completed another movie before lunch, Tallulah drives Danny (Brian Hutchison), the film editor assisting her, bonkers with foulmouthed interruptions fueled by cocaine and scotch. By the time we hear the infamous line "And so, Patricia, as I was telling you . . ." for the 256th time, we too are on the brink of madness.
Harper dominates the first act as Tallulah spits out a stream of one-liners ("I'm bisexual: Buy me something? I'll be sexual"). Several of her exchanges with Danny devolve into "Who's on first?" routines, but it's still fun to watch this over-the-top flaming creature take down such an embodiment of squareness, and Rob Ruggiero's perfunctory staging doesn't get in her way.
But in the second half of the show, Tallulah inexplicably turns into a supportive listener (Tallulah, meet Rhoda) and we have to suffer through Danny's back story. Are we supposed to believe she would have listened to that bore for more than a minute? It plays like a gay man's fantasy of being a BFF with a diva.
Lombardo's stuffed his show with authentic biographical tidbits, but his main plot point distorts one of the most infamous episodes in Tallulah's career. By all accounts, she did not play up Blanche DuBois to placate her camp-hungry fans, as he suggests, and worked hard on delivering an honest portrayal.
Harper plays the final redemptive scene to the hilt, but ending the show on that feel-good note betrays both Tallulah's life and her art.
A previously unknown Tallulah Bankhead — the fabulous monster as crackerjack comic — is revealed to the world in Matthew Lombardo’s play “Looped,” which stars Valerie Harper as that troubled actress in her twilight moments. As she lurches around the recording studio where the play is set in 1965, unable to finish the last bit of work on what will prove to be her final film, Tallulah barks out punch lines with the skill of a stand-up comic with decades of Borscht Belt experience, despite the half-bottle of Scotch flowing through her veins.
Even the estimable wisecracker Joan Rivers might want to hustle down to the Lyceum Theater, where the show opened on Broadway on Sunday night, to pick up a few pointers.
Mr. Lombardo’s play, efficiently directed by Rob Ruggiero, is basically a diva vehicle that resurrects the Bankhead of familiar stereotype — foulmouthed, hard drinking, foghorn voiced and sex crazed — for another weary stagger across the stage. With the corners of her mouth dragged down to her ankles, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, Ms. Harper camps and vamps with determined proficiency, injecting plenty of life if not much verisimilitude into Mr. Lombardo’s cruel but enjoyably catty cliché.
It’s the last day of postproduction on “Die! Die! My Darling,” one of those schlocky gothic thrillers that allowed former grande dames and sex goddesses of the screen to scrape a living in their later years, or simply pass the time before the cameras until the ultimate final cut. (Unlike some of her peers Bankhead was actually financially secure.) A single line of dialogue requires looping — rerecording to match the film — but Tallulah cannot manage to speak the requisite syllables in the proper order.
As she stalls and stutters, expressing infinite scorn for the tedious process, she perfumes the stale air of the studio with snappy one-liners on her favorite subjects, namely her own eccentric behavior and uneven career, and the consoling seductions of booze, drugs, cigarettes and sex.
Her audience consists of a beleaguered film editor, Danny (Brian Hutchison), who has been corralled into supervising the session because the director skipped town, and a studio technician, Steve (Michael Mulheren), who watches from a booth above the studio as Tallulah toys with poor Danny like a haughty, grizzled feline batting around a hapless mouse.
The play’s wit level lurches up and down, rather like Tallu at her most soused. Some jokes are seriously hoary or contrived. “Of course I have a drinking problem,” Tallulah snaps at Danny. “Whenever I’m not drinking, oh honey, it’s a problem.” Some are pretty cheap, as when Tallulah brags that she slept with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Crawford (then his wife), who was no fun. “She kept getting out of bed to beat the children,” she cracks. But there are plenty of slashing, funny zingers, even if you can sometimes predict the punch line in the pause before it arrives.
Refreshingly, Mr. Lombardo goes rather light on the “dahlings.” But he does not reveal an equally deft touch with dramaturgy. Aiming for something more than a festival of bitchery, he works up an emotional climax in which Tallulah, now inebriated, relives the humiliating experience of her fans jeering at her Blanche DuBois. The incident is famously documented, but it still feels like a forced attempt to shoehorn pathos into what is fundamentally a showboaty comic vehicle.
In the second act Tallulah mixes a smidgen of therapeutic sympathy with the coarse jokes and self-indulgent tantrums, as Mr. Lombardo dwells at excessive length on a subplot involving (yawn) the sex life of one of the men trying to pin Tallulah down and pull out that last ornery sentence.
Mr. Mulheren makes the most of his cool character, while the boyish Mr. Hutchison provides more skillful acting than is strictly necessary in his role as the butt of, and audience for, Tallulah’s rampaging cattiness. He brings an emotional intensity to his confessional scenes that’s persuasive, but you still wish Danny would pull himself together so we could move on.
Because, after all, the play exists primarily to showcase the leading lady. Ms. Harper, still best known as one of television’s most famous best friends (Rhoda Morgenstern on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and its spinoff, young ’uns), commands the stage handily and reveals precise comic timing. She is not really a natural fit for the role — both the sandpaper voice and the flouncing hauteur seem applied from without — but she gives an enjoyably big, blustery performance, nailing every last laugh with a professionalism that the real Bankhead would surely admire.
“Show business, baby,” Tallulah shrugs, after confessing that she was partly to blame for the “Streetcar Named Desire” fiasco, indulging her audience by sending herself up. “We always give the people what they want.”
True enough, Tallu. Ms. Harper dutifully honors Mr. Lombardo’s intentions to soften his harsh cartoon with layers of regret and remorse, but the Tallulah of “Looped” is fundamentally a camp parody, all lewdness, crudeness and tart bons mots. A pioneering drag queen, in short, who just happened to be born female.
Long before reality TV was a twinkle in any program director's eye, Tallulah Bankhead proved that self-degradation was a highly marketable art form. Though a famous beauty and promising actress in her youth, Bankhead's most memorable role would be the caricature of herself she became in later years: the gravelly voiced, grotesquely mannered, dissolute creature who launched a thousand drag-queen skits.
Bankhead embraced and milked the part, but what choice did she have? Coming up in a less enlightened era, she was destined to be defined by her exploits as a free-thinking, fast-living woman. Better to be in on the joke than to invite scorn or, worse, pity.
That's clearly the perspective of Matthew Lombardo, the author of Looped (* * * out of four). The play, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, is a passionate, if not entirely convincing, rebuttal to anyone who has tried to reduce Bankhead to a punch line.
Looped also is extremely funny, thanks in large part to Valerie Harper's pitch-perfect portrait of the seminal diva. She plays Bankhead toward the end of her life, in 1965, when the star shot her final movie, by all accounts as sneer-worthy as its title: Die, Die My Darling. The action takes place in a sound studio where Bankhead re-records (or "loops") some dialogue.
As Lombardo reimagines the session, Bankhead staggers in hours late and, predictably, in no shape to work. She's more interested in getting to know the film editor, Danny Miller, a '50s-style square appalled by her substance abuse (on display throughout their scenes) and vulgar language and demeanor. Having been around the block a few times, and then some, Bankhead senses that Mr. Clean has a few demons of his own.
It turns out that Miller, played by an endearingly flustered Brian Hutchison, indeed has a back story. Conveniently, that tale makes him a perfect representative for both Bankhead's fans and detractors. Responding to his plight, and his questions about her own, the faded starlet can — in between wisecracks — address accusations, air grievances and express empathy. The plot twist and shifts in tone may serve Lombardo's agenda, but they undermine the credibility of his story and inject an awkward note of melodrama.
Looped is far better when the writer and leading lady express their love and respect by going for laughs. Harper's witty, exuberant performance captures Bankhead's cartoonish flamboyance but also shows us the cunning, resilience and genius for irony behind it. "Life is a joke, dahling," she tells Miller. "For those of us who have a sense of humor."
It's in paying homage to that humor and practical wisdom that Looped does its subject the most justice.