One of the more colorful figures inhabiting mid-20th century Hollywood was actress Tallulah Bankhead. Although she had devolved into a camp figure by the time of her death at the age of 66 and is best known to my generation for her maligned final film, Die, Die, My Darling (as well as her wicked Black Widow on the Batman TV series), she had considerable early success as a stage actress in New York City, shooting to stardom in the original Broadway production of The Little Foxes.
A new world premiere play, Looped (now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse), triumphantly raises Ms. Bankhead from the dead. Written by Matthew Lombardo (who also wrote Tea at Five, about the late Katharine Hepburn), it stars Valerie Harper as Tallulah and Chad Allen as Danny, a "boring as Tupperware" studio suit charged with having the late, drunk and high actress re-record one line of dialogue for Die, Die, My Darling. What would ordinarily take about five minutes became, in real life, an eight-hour ordeal that Lombardo re-imagines as a truth-telling encounter between the star and her horrified, closeted handler.
Hilarious lines and Bankhead quotes come fast and furious in the play's first act. The second act is more serious and, at times, heavy on psychobabble in an attempt to explain the monkeys on both Tallulah's and Danny's backs. All in all, though, Looped is a revelatory play and an entertaining night at the theatre.
Harper is wonderful as Bankhead, creating a real woman and not a mere caricature. She is particularly extraordinary at two points in the play when she, as Bankhead, plays Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams wrote the part with Bankhead in mind but she rejected the role when it was initially offered to her, much to her later regret). Harper-as-Bankhead-as-Blanche was riveting, and you could hear a pin drop in the audience.
Allen's Danny starts out timid, appropriately so, but emerges as a strong foil for Harper's Bankhead. That they go from nearly ripping each other's throats out to drinking buddies by the play's end seems utterly plausible. Rob Ruggiero's direction is taut, and Adrian W. Jones sound-recording room that occasionally morphs (with the help of Michael Gilliam's lighting) into a Southern plantation is ingenious.
I foresee Looped having a long life and, in all likelihood, moving to Broadway, but southern California residents only have until August 3rd to catch its world premiere in Pasadena. As Tallulah might well say, "Run, don't walk, daaa-lings!"
UPDATE: Looped is now heading to Broadway.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.