Thursday, January 8, 2009

Theater review: In 'Looped,' Tallulah Bankhead and Valerie Harper both deserve better

Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped.

By Hap Erstein

Oh, what an intermission can do.

After one act of Tallulah Bankhead, the off-color, inebriated comedienne, she returns after a 15-minute break and is suddenly lucid, compassionate and dramatic. In both cases she is two-dimensional, but just different dimensions in the two acts of
Looped, the Valerie Harper vehicle now at the Cuillo Centre that is said to be Broadway-bound.

Since
Looped is written by Matthew Lombardo, previously known for the Katharine Hepburn solo show Tea at Five, he at least deserves credit for not taking the expected route of a one-person biographical recitation. Instead, he hit upon a juicy incident from late in Bankhead’s career where she is summoned to a Los Angeles recording studio in 1965 to redub -- or “loop” in industry jargon -- one line of dialogue from what would be her final film, the campy exercise in Gothic horror, Die! Die! My Darling!

What should have taken five minutes actually took eight hours, largely because the burned-out diva was herself looped on her emotional crutches of booze, cocaine and pills. Lombardo takes on the task of explaining what happened in that recording session, building up the role of a mousy, button-down studio rep named Danny Miller (Chad Allen, reprising the role he originated at the Pasadena Playhouse last summer).

In the first act, he is Bankhead’s flunky, off of which she bounces lots of the crude zingers she was famously quoted as saying, and more than a few that Lombardo concocted. “Cocaine isn’t habit-forming. I should know, I’ve been using it for years,” is an example of the former, and certainly Harper knows how to deliver such material for maximum risible effect. But gathering so many bon mots and putting them in Bankhead’s mouth in an hour’s time makes her sound like a stand-up comic and a lot more sober than her slugging and snorting suggests.

Then in the second act, after Danny has taken much abuse from Bankhead, we are asked to believe that he would bare himself to her, confiding his most personal secret. She too catches the truth-telling spirit as these vastly different people decide, a little too conveniently, that they are really kindred souls.

It is enough to make us wish the playwright had taken the easy route and just given us a monologue of Tallulah-isms.

Those who have seen Harper as Pearl Buck (
All Under Heaven) or Golda Meir (Golda’s Balcony) will not be surprised to see that she has the acting chops to be a credible Bankhead. She shows off the necessary flamboyant gestures, the cultured, withering vocal patterns and the death mask facial expressions. But Looped never allows her to stake a performance of much depth.

The same goes for Allen, who is little more than her straight man early on, and then called on for an emotional breakdown that is all but unplayable. In a thankless minor role, Michael Karl Orenstein is virtually unseen and barely heard as the recording session’s sound engineer.

Adrian K. Jones contributes an attractive studio set, which occasionally reveals a bit of New Orleans grillwork for Bankhead’s undistinguished appearance as Blanche DuBois in
A Streetcar Named Desire at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Late in Looped, Harper gets to deliver a speech of Blanche’s, giving us another glimpse of the Bankhead she might have been.

But for most of the loopy evening, she is stymied by a script trying to force a portrait of the artist as a quip-spewing, and then mawkish, icon.

LOOPED, Cuillo Centre for the Arts, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Continuing through Feb. 15. Tickets: $45-$55. Call: (561) 835-9226.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

We saw the show on Dec.27th and we loved it. Four of us went and it was one of the better written and acted shows that we have seen in a long time. We see the best Broadway has to offer as we live in Toronto and get the best of the best. The reviewer was wrong or maybe he just got up on the wrong side of the bed.

LuLu said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your personal review. Since I am considering purchasing tickets for my daughter and I to see the play, I appreciated your more kindly review and will now look forward to an experience similar to yours.

JJSNYC22 said...

I saw Looped in its Florida production, and found it brilliant. I lived in New York City for thirty years and, needless to say, was an avid theater goer. Valerie Harpers performance in Lopped is GOLDEN. The show deserves the highest of praise. I look forward, anxiouly, to its Broadway opening!