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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Looped debuts at The Pasadena Playhouse where Lombardo also presented his one-woman play Tea at Five starring Kate Mulgrew as Katharine Hepburn. As the Playhouse's Artistic Director Sheldon Epps pointed out, Tea at Five, though it's had a successful career, is a monologue while Looped is definitely and gloriously a play, starring the superb Valerie Harper. Believe me, you will never think of her as just Rhoda again.
Based on a real tape in which Bankhead takes eight hours to loop one line from Die, Die, My Darling, Lombardo sets the play in a recording studio and creates a conflict between Bankhead and assistant director Danny Miller (Chad Allen) to paint a character portrait. Although he gives us enough references to her past, it's not a chronological bioplay. We learn that Tallulah was the daughter of an Alabama congressman and Speaker of the House, granddaughter of a senator, working actress at 15, West End London star in her 20s, and Broadway star soon after. Her triumphs included The Little Foxes, Skin of Our Teeth, Private Lives and Alfred Hitchcock's movie Lifeboat. Her tragedies included the venereal disease and hysterectomy that ended any hope of having children. She used her lifelong addiction to alcohol and drugs to become a camp parody of herself and her brilliant wicked tongue to ward off love, though her bisexual love affairs were legion. One of the play's funniest lines is, "You buy and I'll be sexual."
Lombardo finds ways to emphasize Bankhead's mind by having her object to the ungrammatical line she's given and showcases her talent by letting her recite a speech from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire which both Harper and Bankhead deliver hauntingly. In Danny, he's constructed a character with a crippling problem which Tallulah eases by forcing him to be as blunt and open about his feelings as she is. It's a formula but Lombardo uses it to catch Bankhead's voice and Harper uses it to mine warmth, sadness and understanding beneath what could be just a campy construction of quotes. Rob Ruggiero, whose direction is clipped but never rushed, deserves some credit for this. Allen is strong in the more limited character of Danny and Michael Karl Orenstein makes Steve, the sound engineer's, monosyllabic comments a treat.
The play makes Tallulah a character, not a caricature, while giving full entertainment value. Miller, though often devastatingly cruel, never lets Bankhead walk all over him and their conflict. It is also hilariously funny, one of the best plays in years. It should go far but Valerie Harper should always go with it.