Sitting among the half-old, half-gay, half-old gays audience at a preview performance of Looped
, a new play by Matthew Lombardo having its New York premiere at Broadway's Lyceum Theater after premiering at the Pasadena Playhouse in 2008, it was hard to tell if the rapt crowd was clapping for stage and screen veteran Valerie Harper, or her character, the infamous Tallulah Bankhead
. Likely the applause, which followed damn near every joke in this punch line-filled backstage period comedy, have to do with the irresistible combination of the performer onstage, and the performer she's invoking. Harper, perhaps best known as Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
and then as the star of her own spin-off
, infuses the notorious actress and sultry socialite Bankhead with an epic, outrageous and world-weary grandeur.
Set in the twilight of Bankhead's career and three years before her death at age 68, the two-act play takes place during a torturous recording session for what would prove to be her last film, 1965's Die! Die! My Darling!
. In a sumptuous recording studio set
(by Adrian W. Jones
) that film's editor and, as he learns in the opening moments, de-facto sound designer Danny (Brian Hutchinson, faring admirably as an accessory to the main attraction) is charged with getting a clean recording of one of Tallulah's lines, mumbled during shooting. The only other character is the dry-witted studio manager Steve (Michael Mulheren), watching over the action from his sound booth. Neither man, no matter how prepared for the famously drunken and drugged-up late-career diva he thinks himself to be, eludes her control for very long.
Sweeping into the room wrapped in mink over a (frankly disappointing) purple dress, Harper hams it up as Tallulah, letting loose with lurid language, spinning fantastic stories and wicked rumors (many true) about contemporaneous theater and film stars, and pushing and prodding Danny into shedding the strictures of his gray flannel suit. Sandwiches, Scotch and snorts of various drugs are consumed, but the line that's the focus of the session and should have required ten minutes takes up the entire day. In that time Tallulah's life is laid bare, with Lombardo grasping at the person behind a very big personality.
A boastful bisexual who claimed to have, and by many accounts did bed most major movie stars of her time, Bankhead was a raunchy pre-production code star whose antics outside the Hollywood studios likely limited her successes therein. Obvious modern day analogies to Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse, for instance, don't do justice to the media fluency and unflinching public performance that became Tallulah's life. Despite relatively few film roles—most memorably in George Cukor's Tarnished Lady
(1931), Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat
(1944) and Otto Preminger's A Royal Scandal
(1945)—she sustained her career throughout the 40s, 50s and early 60s in theater, rather famously, for instance, as Tennessee Williams' inspiration for the character of another Southern belle, Blanche DuBois
. (Tallulah evokes other more or less fictional characters, like Mae West, Bette Midler, and several Noel Coward vamps.) Accordingly, A Streetcar Named Desire
serves as Looped
's most prominent intertext, with Harper launching into one of its most famous passages as the studio set melts away to reveal the outline of a classic New Orleans rowhouse porch
That this magical effect is used more than once dulls its impact, and underlines this play's biggest problem: its tendency towards excessive repetition. Certainly, we do gradually come to apprehend the outlines of Tallulah's and Danny's closely-guarded characters somewhat more roundly through the push-and-pull of zingers, confrontations and breakdowns. But the way to that understanding is continually reduced to a formula that the eager audience applauds all too happily, further slowing and impeding the play's snappy progression, stunting its momentum. Its title, then, becomes a pun of a different sort, hinting at an over-reliance on certain narrative routines and structures that continually loop back around with insufficient variation. Certainly the two leads delight even as they patiently stall through endless, obnoxious applause, but in the end Lombardo's writing is just as indulgent as the crowd, circling Looped
's touching, bittersweet denouement too long for a few extra laughs.
(photo credit: Carol Rosegg)