A ‘Deliciously Disgraceful’ Tallulah

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A “Deliciously Disgraceful’ Tallulah

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com on March 6, 2013

It has become practically a genre: the ordeal of the showbiz little guy by balky, dysfunctional star. Think My Favorite Year, My Week With Marilyn, Barrymore, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In these dramas, young strivers in some branch of showbiz, given responsibility but little power, must endure the cutups of a star who has something very different on his or her mind (or what is left of it) than the job at hand. A recent entry in the genre, Looped, at Baltimore’s Hippodrome for two weeks, has the classical elements: a celebrity on her last legs, so addled with alcohol, coke, and pills that she cannot “loop” the recording of a single line to complete a movie; the striver, in this case a young film editor who comes to do his job but stays to experience a very personal catharsis; the star’s disclosure of the path to dysfunction; and some moments in which the star shows what she could do once upon a time. It’s an interesting genre, and this is a fine entry.

The star in question is the in her own words “deliciously disgraceful” actress and celebrity Tallulah Bankhead, channeled, in a very interesting bit of casting, by Stefanie Powers. The role was to have been played by Valerie Harper, who had held down all this show’s previous incarnations of Tallulah, starting with the Pasadena Playhouse in 2008, and continuing thereafter in West Palm Beach, Washington, and on Broadway. Ms. Harper has unfortunately gone on the sick list, however, and so Stefanie Powers has been called in. Considering that Powers was actually herself part of the event being dramatized, having co-starred with Bankhead in the very movie Bankhead held up with that unfinished “loop” (the 1965 horror flick Die, Die, My Darling), and given that Powers has of late distinguished herself as another faded and dotty star, namely Norma Desmond (in a production of Sunset Boulevard I was fortunate enough to see at the Ogunquit, Maine Playhouse, which is reportedly being brought to New York), she is an utter natural for the role.

There was a time when everyone knew what Bankhead looked and sounded like, but that time is past. This play cannot sell itself primarily on the thrill of seeing Bankhead walk among us again, as can My Week With Marilyn. Instead, it rises or falls on the strength of those classical elements mentioned above.

The central calculation playwright Matthew Lombardo has made is that the conduct of Tallulah, deliberately muffing lines, cadging drinks to fuel an outrageous alcoholic thirst, insisting on coming late and taking lengthy breaks will be more amusing than irritating. (The show is billed as “A New Comedy.”) And to the extent Bankhead’s schtick isn’t amusing, he hopes its appeal will be aided by Tallulah being Tallulah, recounting bawdy memories, dropping outrageous bon mots (for instance dismissing the notion that cocaine is addictive with the comment: “Nonsense, I’ve been doing it for years”). And if that doesn’t work, there is an appeal to pathos, a memory of a Bankhead performance as Blanche in Streetcar Named Desire that she deliberately camped up because her audience no longer looked to her to do it straight, followed, toward the end of Looped, by a purer, more vulnerable bit of performance as Blanche, authenticating Bankhead’s true gifts as an actress. And finally, should all else fail, Lombardo gives the comparative youngster, the film editor, Danny Miller (Brian Hutchison) a back story that shows him in bad need of moral and life lessons that only Tallulah can provide.

It would be very interesting indeed if there really had been an historical Danny Miller, but, alas, the real film editor seems to have been named John Dunsford, a creature of the world of British B-movies, not the Hollywood type presented here. (The movie was made in England, and, for all I can determine, the looping happened there too, not in LA as presented in the show.) It is thus a reasonable guess that the character of Danny was created out of whole cloth to be a foil for Tallulah.  Somehow this lack of authenticity matters.

I will not spoil the plot’s secrets by saying exactly how, but I will note that the gradual revelation of Danny’s story is made to carry an enormous amount of weight in the play that the Tallulah-being-Tallulah business therefore did not have to sustain, and indeed could not have sustained. In plain English, it looks as if the Danny-plot were conceived as filler that enables what is organically a one-act play to grow to two acts. The ultimate success of Looped therefore depends on the ability of this filler to take on a life of its own, even if we know it’s likely a complete fiction. I believe it does, thanks in no small measure to Brian Hutchison’s careful handling of the part. Hutchison takes a character who at first glance is flat and non-descript and allows us slowly to witness the character’s tortured inner life, one that the encounter with Tallulah Bankhead arguably improves and perhaps saves.

In the small but crucial part of Steve, the recording engineer, Matthew Montelongo nails the archetypal Hollywood tech guy, one who is not (as Danny turns out to be) terribly emotionally involved with the bits of moviemaking activity that come within his purview, but able to interact forcefully in an understated sardonic way when called upon. If the label of comedy truly fits on this performance, Montelongo’s character has a lot to do with it.

Credit is also due to director Rob Ruggiero, for keeping things moving along, not slaughtering the audience with frustration at Tallulah’s balkiness, not allowing the strong reminders of Tallulah’s impending demise or the sad secrets of Danny’s life to make things too gloomy, and for maintaining a consistent tone even through Tallulah’s flashbacks. This is not great drama or great comedy, but it is an enjoyable evening of theater, thanks in large measure to Ruggiero’s sure hand.

Of course, in the end none of it matters if Powers does not deliver, but no one can deny that she knocks it out of the park. It may be a tinier park than some, but knock it she does.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for photograph

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