The spectacle of the Diva in extremis — from Margo Channing and Maria Callas to Kate Hepburn — promises outrageous fun while threatening to veer into crude cliche. Both are abundantly present in Matthew Lombardo’s “Looped.” Valerie Harper’s Tallulah Bankhead buries, or at least sets aside, memories of Rhoda Morgenstern in a performance brimming with art and heart, albeit shoehorned into a maladroit main plot unworthy of Harper’s skill or our interest. As was so often true of the legendary star Harper portrays, the lady deserves a sturdier vehicle.
Lombardo’s jumping-off point is a fabled eight-hour audiotape of Bankhead (1902-68) fighting off disdain, illness and an endless supply of bennies and booze to loop a single line of dialogue for her final screen appearance in 1965’s “Die! Die! My Darling!,” perhaps the worst of those ’60s Gothic horror pics offering work to a cavalcade of embarrassed Old Hollywood goddesses.
By the time Harper emits her first throaty “Daahhhhling!” eight minutes in, she’s already run through her repertoire of tics: pushing back hair, slurring consonants, gesturing extravagantly with her arms as she staggers on her pegs. It’s arresting, if frankly indistinguishable from what the late Charles Pierce would have done with this role.
Yet as Harper’s perf settles in, Bankhead is bolstered by a lifetime of warding off misfortune with practiced wit. Two lifetimes, actually. Harper’s comedy chops eclipse even Tallulah’s in a string of profane quips directed at Hollywood (“the only industry where mediocrity is rewarded”) to the roaring approval of the opening-night audience.
Harper nails the attitude as well as the voice, refusing to be drawn into self-pity. “Of course I have a drinking problem. Whenever I’m not drinking? Oh, honey, it’s a problem.” Bankhead accepts philosophically that her life has now become the performance; some past talent remains, though stifled by decades of bad choices and emotional baggage.
It’s nothing, though, compared with the baggage of uptight sound editor Danny (Chad Allen), directed by Rob Ruggiero into undermotivated hostility and insult that forfeit all sympathy. Allen begins furious and remains there.
Similar falseness plagues the work scenes, which center on line memorization and expressiveness without ever raising any ADR session’s central issue of matching the words to lip movement. (Forcing her to suit her actions to her mouth is a Bankhead straight line if ever there was one.)
A marked exception to the glibness is the reenactment of Tallulah’s 1955 Blanche DuBois at Florida’s Coconut Grove Playhouse, when her camp followers screamingly denied her efforts to perform creditably; the moment aptly stands in for the unintended consequences of lusting after fame.
And by the end, as Michael Gilliam’s lights transform Adrian Jones’ Rat Pack-ready recording studio into a delicate “Streetcar” fantasy, she (and Harper) prove the lady most certainly had the role in her.
If Lombardo were content to dramatize a declining artist struggling against all odds to do a job — surely enough stakes and suspense for one play — “Looped” could admit all the jokes and reminiscence as her defense mechanisms, while proceeding to a terrifying conclusion in the manner of Jay Presson Allen’s “Tru.” But the current play was doomed to kitsch once the scribe chose to loop in a tediously irrelevant second banana in need of tea and sympathy. You just don’t do that to stars.