Sensitive souls who yearn to be both abused and mothered by a formidable female icon like Tallulah Bankhead are free to indulge those unhealthy fantasies at “Looped.” In this backhanded tribute by Matthew Lombardo, Valerie Harper is required to make a gargoyle of Tallulah, who staggers into a Hollywood sound studio and takes all day to loop a single line of dialogue. Although allowed to redeem herself by coaxing a neurasthenic film editor out of the closet, the legendary star is reduced to playing Good Witch/Bad Bitch while spouting a litany of her famous quips.
Harper, who is something of a legend in her own right, gives a brave perf as Tallulah at the end of her days. Bursting into the studio in trademark mink over a low-cut cocktail gown (William Ivey Long designed the spot-on period costume), Harper gives us a wonderful taste of the spirited star we came to see.
“Fuck Los Angeles!” she brays, launching into an alcohol-fueled diatribe that brings down the house. But after that lovely rant, all the life slowly drains out of the 63-year-old character, who is so far gone on booze and pills and hard living that it’s an effort for her to focus.
To the contempt of Danny Miller (played in a state of rigor mortis by Brian Hutchison), the frantic film editor on this project, and the amusement of a sound engineer (the barely visible Michael Mulheren), the actress is such a wreck, she can barely stand — let alone read lines.
In her inebriated state, it takes Tallulah a full day — in stage time, the entire play — to provide the missing line of dialogue for “Die! Die! My Darling,” the 1965 horror pic that would prove to be her last film. And yet, during the interminable first act, the ravaged actress is required to stand and deliver a compilation of her greatest hits, those brittle and bitterly witty social criticisms for which she was justifiably celebrated.
Harper is nothing if not game, and she snaps out the juicy lines with gusto. But it’s a hard, hard thing to deliver a brilliant standup routine when your character is also supposed to be drunk, stoned and near death. And to judge from the mannered poses Harper adopts to assist in the delivery of these stilted bon mots, she didn’t get a heap of help from helmer Rob Ruggiero, who directed the show’s premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse and subsequent productions in Palm Beach, Fla., and Washington, D.C.
That task is even harder to pull off when the character who is supposed to play your foil is in a perpetual childish sulk. By the time Danny finds his tongue, deep into the second act, it’s too late for these characters to connect in any believable fashion. And, alas, much too late for Tallulah to recover her true voice.