For anyone over a certain age, there was, is, will always be only one Tallulah.

Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead won awards and acclaim galore for her leading turns in 1939’s The Little Foxes and 1942’s The Skin Of Our Teeth (originating the roles of Regina and Sabina).

Film star Tallulah received the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Actress for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 classic Lifeboat.  

By the 1960s, however, Tallulah Bankhead was famous for one thing only—being Tallulah, an over-the-top, scenery-chewing, alcoholic regular on TV talk shows who occasionally parodied herself on stage and, most notably, in her last film, 1965’s horror shlocker Die! Die! My Darling!.

Legend has it that a looping session for a single line of Die! Die! My Darling! dialog, one that was expected to take only five minutes, dragged on for well over eight hours due to Tallulah’s “eccentricities.”  Inspired by this “longest day” in Hollywood history, playwright Matthew Lombardo has penned a fictionalized account, dubbed quite cleverly indeed “Looped.”

Lombardo’s bio-play proves to be one of the most entertaining evenings of theater in recent memory, with a starring turn by Valerie Harper that is sure to win awards and acclaim galore. 

In Tallulah Bankhead, Harper gets her “role of a lifetime,” and she sinks her teeth into it with bravery and gusto, knocking the ball out of the ballpark. (Prohibition against mixed metaphors be damned!)

Looped begins with film editor Danny Miller (Chad Allen) awaiting Tallulah’s arrival at a Los Angeles recording studio, with sound man Steve (Michael Karl Orenstein) up high in the booth.

“Fuck L.A.!” bellows Tallulah/Harper, making her entrance to audience cheers before launching into an anti-L.A. rant which ends only when she finally notices that she is not alone in the room. “Who the fuck are you!?” she asks Danny, who dares to complain about her lateness. “But I woke up bright and early this afternoon!” she protests.

The latter is one of the countless witticisms that Tallulah Bankhead is justly famous for. Lombardo’s script imagines that she said them all in the course of a single afternoon/evening.

Here are some of the best:

•“I’ve tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic and the others give me a stiff neck or lockjaw.”
•“Once I introduced a friend of mine as ‘Martini’. Her name was actually ‘Olive’.”
•“I’ll take a bourbon and water … without the water.”
•“Of course I have a drinking problem. When I’m not drinking, I have a problem.”

Looped touches on Bankhead’s alleged lesbianism and on her drug use as well. “Joan Crawford was a lousy lay,” reveals Tallulah. “She kept getting out of bed to beat the children.”  When Danny wonders what pills she is popping from prescription bottles, she deadpans, “Breath mints.” Say what?  “Codeine happens to be leading the fight against halitosis,” she explains, and later, upon taking a snort of cocaine, she quips, “Cocaine?  Addictive?  I ought to know.  I’ve been doing it for years.”

On the summer afternoon in 1965 when Looped takes place, all Tallulah Bankhead has to do is wait for three beeps and then recite a single line of dialog from Die! Die! My Darling!, yet even this proves too much for her.  It’s hard enough for Danny just to get her to hear the beeps much less say the line correctly, the redoubtable star much preferring to rag on about her sister Eugenia or reveal tidbits about her childhood such as having suffered the indignity of being rejected … by her own imaginary friend.

The fictional Danny turns out to be a good deal more than Tallulah’s straight man. Initially cowed by the daunting Miss Bankhead, the harried editor slowly begins to assert himself, daring to correct Tallulah’s memories of starring in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.  No, Danny insists, she didn’t play Blanche Dubois on Broadway nor was it in London’s West End, but rather at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida, an exchange which leads to one of Looped’s most devastating sequences. In a flashback to the opening night performance, Michael Gilliam’s superb lighting transforms Adrian W. Jones’ finely detailed recording studio set into the French quarter backdrop for Streetcar, and we hear the cruel laughter that greets the no longer respected star’s performance as Blanche, which Harper duplicates to perfection.  (Kudos to sound designer Michael Hooker.) Realizing that audiences saw her only as the caricature she had become in their eyes, a devastated Tallulah decides to “give the faggots what they came for” and the curtain falls on Act 1.

Things turn considerably more serious in Act 2 as Tallulah tries to get to certain truths that Danny has been hiding for year, and reveals a good deal of her own truths in the process. 

Valerie Harper is of course best known for the eight years she portrayed Mary Richard’s best friend Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off Rhoda.  Any memory of that role is promptly erased by Harper’s extraordinary work here. This is not the first time that Harper has become unrecognizable as a real life character. In her most recent stage appearance she disappeared under makeup as Golda Meir.  If her performance in Looped is any indication, she must have been sensational as the Israeli Prime Minister. That a single actress can become two women as different as Golda and Tallulah is nothing short of miraculous.  As Tallulah Bankhead, Harper commands the stage with the actress’s famed smoker’s voice, distinctive delivery, and frequent utterance of the word “Darling” spoken as only Tallulah could. It is masterful comedic work and equally fine in dramatic moments, none of them finer than when Harper recreates Bankhead playing Blanche Dubois with the brilliance of which Tallulah was indeed capable.

Anyone expecting Chad Allen’s Danny to be simply stage dressing for Harper’s Tallulah had better think again. It’s been seven years since Allen has appeared on L.A. stages in Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, and since then he has gone on to be one of Hollywood’s most successful and esteemed openly gay actors, currently starring in Logo’s series of Donald Strachey mystery films.  Allen fans (and the applause that greeted the actor’s first appearance in Looped indicates that there are many) are in for a real treat at the Playhouse.  Allen’s Danny is far more than Tallulah’s “straight man” (no pun intended).   As Tallulah digs deep into Danny’s past, Allen triumphs in a performance of power and depth.

Michael Karl Orenstein has far less to do as Steve, and spends his entire performance behind glass in the overhead sound booth, but his dryly funny performance is very good indeed.

Director Rob Ruggiero deserves highest marks for helping to shape the performances and for never allowing Looped (or Tallulah) to descend into the realm of camp. (Costume designer Alex Jaeger and hair and wig designer Charles LaPointe deserve applause as well for the physical transformation Harper undergoes to become truly another person.)

The cheers that accompanied Harper, Allen, and Orenstein on opening night were tumultuous, and justifiably so.  Though it may help to have seen clips of the real Tallulah to truly appreciate the brilliance of Harper’s performance and the ingenuity of Lombardo’s script, even younger audience members for whom Tallulah is nothing more than a odd-sounding name will be entranced by Looped. 

As Tallulah herself might have put it:
“I’d say we’ve got a fucking hit on our hands, darling!”

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Avenue, Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
July 8, 2008

Comments are closed.