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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
But a clever title can take you so far. And the free-spirited actress with the outsized personality isn't exactly being resurrected on stage for the first time. Tallulah Bankhead's legendary sexual escapades, substance indulgence and much quoted bawdy zingers have inspired a number of diva-geared plays (Tallulah with Kathryn Turner and Tallulah's Party with Tovah Feldshuh). The voice deepened by smoke and liquor and the uncensorable outrageousness have also been a boon to female impersonators.
Valerie Harper, best-known as the feisty Rhoda Morgenstern of the long running TV series, is a worthy addition to the Tallulah channelers. Bewigged by Charles LaPointe and poured into a slinky gown with deep decolletage by William Ivy Long, Harper does the legend of lewdness still roaring in the winter of her declining years with the requisite husky voice and exaggerated mannerisms. It's an impressive performance, buoyed by Harper's perfectly timed and zestfully delivered mucho mots. If it's more like a 9 than a perfect 10, remember that Bankhead herself declared "Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it."
Both Harper and Tallulah Bankhead deserve better than the thin gruel that Matthew Lombardo has cooked up from the movie looping incident. He's hauled out plenty of Tallulahisms and added a few of his own for good measure; for example sue sums up her admittedly free and easy sex life with "I've gone easy my entire life. That's why I have so many penpals." She tells all about her bi-sexual leanings with a catty description of Joan Crawford as a lousy lay— "kept getting out of bed to beat the children.""
The trouble is not that Looped has a shortage of these Tallulahisms or that Harper doesn't do them justice, but that the mots are so nonstop that it makes her into too much of a standup up comic. What's more d all the funny business about her drinking and snorting cocaine has a decidedly unfunny sobriety to it which might be okay if the script handled the poignancy of a fading celebrity more delicately and less as a one-note portrait. Rob Ruggiero's direction while strong on pace does nothing to tone down the lack of subtety.
The more stand-up shtik than play first act is followed by yet another misstep. In an attempt to go beyond solo celebrity take as he did with Tea at 5 about Katherine Hepburn (review), Lombardo has made Hutchinson's Danny less of a straight man. Tallulah's "everybody has a story" remark is actualized so that Danny does indeed have a story of his own. Seems he's gay but not out, a father but ousted from his daughter's life.
Neither Lombardo's script or Hutchinson's performance are likely to make anybody believe that Tallulah, especially high on drink and cocaine as she is, could really draw all this out of Danny and send him into a vale of emotionally healing tears. As the looping session extended a minor task into an all day event, so Lombardo condenses what would take months of therapy into less than an hour. Had her gifts extended to the helping profession, Bankhead could have spent her final years as a successful therapist rather than struggling to remember her lines for inferior horror films made to exploit aging actresses like her and Bette Davis.
Brian Hutchinson does his best with the thankless role of the short-tempered flunky who's on the verge of a breakdown. I doubt anyone could do much with a character that's essentially a device — first as a straight man and finally as Lombardo's stand-in to pay homage to Bankhead, not as a caricaturish, self-dramatizing celebrity, but as the fine actress she was. (Since most theater goers are too young to remember her in The Little Foxes or finally playing the part of Blanche Dubois which Tennessee Williams wrote with her in mind, should rent the DVD of her finest movie, Life Boat.)
Fortunately the playwright has not saddled Michael Mulheren with any sub-plot baggage. Except for the curtain call, Mulheren is confined to the sound booth. It seems like a waste of an excellent actor though credit Lombardo for giving him some amusing interchanges with Danny; for example, when Danny ponders the possibility of using a voice double instead of having to deal with the volatile Bankhead, Steve helpfully suggests "There's always that sea lion at the aquarium."
Looped does have its high drama moments when lighting designer Ken Billington transforms the all-beige set into a bit of New Orleans for Tallulah to reminisce about turning down A Streetcar Named Desire which Tennessee Williams wrote it with her in mind. A fantasy scene in which she reenacts her Blanche DuBois at the Coconut Grove Playhouse is especially poignant since it sadly came after she'd ceded the role of a lifetime to Jessica Tandy, when the celebrity profile had upstaged the acting career so that her followers expected a campy Blanche.
There were plenty of people at the press preview I attended who clearly thought Looped as much of a hoot as our California critic did when it played in Los Angeles. Maybe if I'd come to the show fortified with a drink, I would have been more in the loop of the laugh-out-louders who seemed to love this Tallulah-cum-Valerie.