nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 17, 2010
Last summer, a show from Florida called My Pal Bette ran at The Producers Club; its fun premise was that a shy gay boy has as his fairy godmother Bette Davis, who helps him understand and come to terms with his homosexuality and overcome his awkwardness by becoming Out and Proud.
I was reminded of that show—a cute and relatively unassuming diversion—throughout the second act of Looped. Looped is a new play by Matthew Lombardo ostensibly about the life and excesses of actress/celebrity Tallulah Bankhead; but in a sort of bait-and-switch, it turns out in fact to be very much like My Pal Bette, as a repressed and closeted film editor gets therapy and tough love from the aging Tallulah, who helps him come to terms with his homosexuality and points him toward a future where he may well overcome his awkwardness by becoming Out and Proud. The chief difference between My Pal Bette and Looped is that where the former never pretends to be anything but a campy gay boy's fantasy about his favorite fierce diva, the latter begs us to take its preposterous premise seriously.
So instead of the play simply using its inciting incident—the fact that Tallulah needs to re-record (or loop) a single troublesome line of dialogue for the film Die! Die! My Darling!—to let the audience soak up a couple of hours of Bankhead's trademark over-the-top outrageousness, Lombardo wants us to care about Danny the Film Editor, who improbably is in charge of the looping session and who, although he later confesses to being an enormous fan, has a chip on his shoulder about ten feet high vis-a-vis his star. Though Tallulah is a walking wreck thanks to decades of substance abuse, and has just been told that she has but six months to live due to emphysema (though she would in fact live three more years beyond the timeframe of this play), Lombardo actually wants us to save our sympathy for Danny, whose wife left him 15 years ago and is unable to follow through any more on his same-sex love interests (because, um, major celebrities like film editors have to be so careful about their public sexual behavior?). Or something like that.
As a result, Looped has relatively little in it of what I came to see, namely, wild and crazy anecdotes about the distinctly interesting life and career of Tallulah Bankhead. A few familiar ones are repeated, and lots of raunchy quips are uttered. (This Tallulah seems incapable of forming a sentence that doesn't have a variant of the word "fuck" in it, as if David Mamet were her personal writer.) Of her relationships, her famous family, her long and quarrelsome professional encounters with the likes of Noel Coward, Alfred Hitchcock, and Bette Davis, virtually nothing is mentioned. Indeed, Lombardo seems fixated on only one Bankhead acting role, that of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire; The Little Foxes and The Skin of Our Teeth and Lifeboat—the reasons why Bankhead was an important actress and star—are more or less absent from this narrative.
The play might nonetheless be salvageable if its star, Valerie Harper, weren't so sadly miscast. Harper looks great and at the same time sufficiently Tallulah-like, wearing the hairstyle, mink coat, and cocktail attire that we associate with Bankhead (via Davis in All About Eve). But Harper's attempt to do Tallulah's throaty voice lacks consistency, with the accent and intonation conjuring Katharine Hepburn more than La Bankhead to my ear. More problematic, the ghost of Rhoda Morganstern (Harper's character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda in the 1970s) never seems to be far away: every time Harper's Tallulah says something naughty or outrageous, Harper "sells it" with a knowing gesture—a raising of the eyebrow, a shrug of the shoulder, a tug on the hair—that we remember from Rhoda's repertoire. It felt to me like she was saying to the audience: sure, I can say these dirty words, but it's still lovable old Rhoda up here.
Brian Hutchison has the long and entirely thankless role of Danny, with which he does what the script requires. Having more fun is Michael Mulheren as the sound guy Steve, who is never actually on stage but rather in a booth above the stage, supplying the occasional expository information or quip. Rob Ruggiero's direction and the production design are all of professional quality, but in service of a script that, arguably, ought not to have been produced.
Helen Gallagher, Tovah Feldshuh, and Kathleen Turner have all recently taken turns bringing Bankhead back to life, so it wasn't clear to me why we needed another Tallulah play at all. But Looped is so misguided in its concept that it doesn't even really qualify as a Tallulah play. What a disappointment!