Every few years the NY theatre gets a “biopic” play or musical in which the lead performance is a stunningly brilliant evocation of its historical figure—who is almost always an entertainer, who had a very public and well-known persona—and the material around it is agreeably watchable and perfectly competent but undeniably mediocre. And this is somewhat the case with Valerie Harper delivering an aggressively dazzling star turn as the gleefully profane Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo’s new comedy, Looped.
As the double-edged title might suggest, the setting is a recording studio in which Ms. Bankhead is scheduled to re-record an otherwise unintelligible line of dialogue for what would be her last film, the C-grade British horror movie Fanatic (released in the US as Die, Die, My Darling)—and when the star does arrive, late of course, she takes very little time to become chemically enhanced: booze, nicotine and cocaine all make co-starring appearances. The play is reportedly based upon an actual incident in which such a recording session for a single line took eight hours.
Where Mr. Lombardo’s play is a little unusual is in its eschewing (save for a an interval of delusion for Ms. Bankhead, late in the first act) the standard “celebrity tells all to audience” reminiscence. Looped keeps its fourth wall resolutely up as Bankhead makes life extravagantly difficult for Danny an increasingly exasperated (Brian Hutchinson), the poor film cutter standing in for an absent sound editor; all observed by the wry engineer Steve (the beefy Broadway mainstay Michael Mulheren, whose dry delivery is as sure-fire as it is, for him, patented and familiar). Why she’s doing this and why Danny lets her get absurdly under his skin with her antics are the points of mild suspense for what is otherwise an excuse for Tallulah to talk about herself and, especially, to sound off outrageously, even scandalously. It’s a flimsy excuse, a little of the shock value goes a long way, and the dramaturgical threadbareness is at the core of the play’s mediocrity.
But to give the playwright his due—and a significant due it is—he gets his laughs, and dozens of them. No doubt he’s often quoting famous Tallulah-isms, but nobody can sustain an evening of this sort on nothing but epigrams, one actually has to invent the transitions, banter and connections between, and there Lombardo proves himself a writer of comedy that any star such as Ms. Harper would be lucky to have at her back. I won’t say that compensates for a play that’s barely developed beyond its premise—but like a lot of the audience, you may not care, so long as Ms. Harper delivers the goods, which she does with ferocious, shameless gusto. In many ways, it proves her finest hour. (Well, hour and a half.) Her timing has never been better, nor the distance from her engaging TV sitcom persona greater. Like Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, James Whitmore’s Will Rodgers and William Windom’s James Thurber, hers is an iconic, indelible portrayal.
Unfortunately whereas Holbrook, Whitmore and Windom could wholly depend on their subjects for text—as writers, Twain, Rodgers and Thurber allow for their characters to perform for the audience “in concert” rather than in confessional—Ms. Harper is doing her thing in an attenuated script that is transparently a vehicle.
I’ll tell you. I’ve seen lots worse trade-offs. And if you know what
getting into, and still think the notion of Harper as Tallulah is worth
won’t be sorry for having attended. As Tallulah herself might have
us if we can’t take a joke…
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