Valerie Harper makes a grand entrance as Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo’s “Looped” at Florida’s Cuillo Center for the Arts. Fur-wrapped, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, the grande dame stumbles onto a movie sound stage, clearly the worse for wear from booze and pills. She bats those unfocused bedroom eyes and unleashes her first pronouncement of the evening: “Fuck Los Angeles!” From there, the play grows exponentially more raucous, anarchic and raunchy. Scores of zingers, one-liners, retorts and anecdotes left the opening night audience roaring so loud the actors often struggled to be heard.
This rewrite of a script that bowed at Pasadena Playhouse last summer with the same cast is not a one-woman bio-play but a three-character serio-comedy that depends on interaction for some of its laughs and most of its dramatic arc.
Playwright Lombardo, who wrote “Tea at Five” about Katharine Hepburn, has fictionalized a real incident in 1965 when a substance-addled Bankhead took eight hours to loop a few lines of dialogue for the legendarily awful horror film, “Die! Die! My Darling!”
Sporting an auburn wig, penciled eyebrows and a voice that sounds like she smoked three cartons of cigarettes before breakfast, Harper solidly inhabits a character so consumed by excess she allowed her celebrity persona to eclipse her considerable talent.
Harper proved her theatrical chops in “Golda’s Balcony” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” Nonetheless, Florida auds are relishing seeing just how far the actress can stretch beyond her television roles to animate this alien creature. Still, it’s Harper’s well-honed sitcom timing that enables her to pull off deadpan lines like “Of course, I have a drinking problem. Whenever I’m not drinking? Oh honey, it’s a problem.”
The fly in the bourbon is that Harper is constantly dueling with Bankhead’s iconic ghost and emerging a close second. It’s nearly impossible for a mere mortal, no matter how talented, to reincarnate a legend whose still photographs, let alone her performances, embody a volcanic force of nature rarely equaled today.
Besides having her lurch around uttering X-rated witticisms like Oscar Wilde, Lombardo posits Bankhead as a debauched Auntie Mame urging everyone to gorge on the banquet of life.
She pressures a nerdy film editor (Chad Allen) into acknowledging how denying his sexuality has crippled him. Occasionally, these scenes feel like a pat device to prevent the play being solely about Bankhead holding forth. But as the schlub evolves into a less stereotypical character, Lombardo uses him to challenge Bankhead’s lifestyle as a cowardly evasion of her own demons.
Most of the time, Lombardo deftly sidesteps those clunky “and then I played Hamlet in Macbeth for Kit Cornell in 1934…” passages that sink many bio-shows. But the playwright’s real skill is melding Bankhead’s documented bon mots with a cascade of hysterical Bankhead-like repartee — the best of it unprintable — that the diva could only wish she had said.
The play moves to Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in May with an eye on a Broadway engagement to follow.