Theater Review: Peter Marks on 'Looped' With Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead

Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped" at Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre.
Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in "Looped" at Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre. (Scott Suchman)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why oh why would playwrights and actors gravitate to the story of a boozy, fading movie star given to lewd gestures and bawdy asides? You know, lines like: "I'll be the first to say I'm bisexual: Buy me something, I'll be sexual."

Right, okay, question answered. Tallulah Bankhead was such a self-dramatizingly decadent free spirit that a mini-industry has grown up around her legend. At least three plays, with such titles as "Dahling" and "Tallulah" and "Tallulah's Party," have been staged over the past dozen years or so to resurrect her in all of her sex-on-the-brain, bourbon-soaked, truth-telling outrageousness.

Now, another Bankhead biographical play can be folded into the anthology: Matthew Lombardo's "Looped" at Arena Stage, with Valerie Harper adding her name to the list of stage actresses (Kathleen Turner, Tovah Feldshuh) -- not to mention assorted men in wigs and high heels -- who have affected her husky voice and profane unconventionality.

And as in many of those earlier endeavors, the driver is a hoot even if the vehicle is rickety. Harper -- frozen in pop culture as the tough-talking '70s TV charmer Rhoda -- undergoes a pretty amazing transformation as the slurry lioness in winter, foisting her carnivorous ego on a hapless Hollywood functionary trying to do the final edits on Bankhead's mid-'60s turkey of a film, "Die! Die! My Darling!"

Ably reaffirming her mastery of the funny riposte, Harper gives surgical-caliber zing to her line readings, guaranteeing this evening at Arena's temporary U Street NW home, the Lincoln Theatre, a base-line entertainment value. Far less secure is the plot that Lombardo builds around her, having mainly to do with the turmoil in the life of the lovelorn editor (Jay Goede) -- a creakily transparent story that tends to over-sentimentalize Bankhead and underline the playwright's hero worship.

The Bankhead cult is probably not of sufficient size to sustain the work on audience curiosity alone; after a career onstage and in film, she died in 1968 at age 66, suffering from emphysema and other illnesses. A generation (or two, or three) unfamiliar with her performances in movies such as the 1944 Hitchcock-directed "Lifeboat" might wonder what the fuss is about. In her time, however, Bankhead -- whose father had been a congressman and speaker of the House -- made a mark virtually as much for her flamboyant self-promotion as for her acting talent.

Her penchant for shocking sexual innuendo becomes the overarching rationale for "Looped": "If I'm going to get poked by a stranger, I better damn well enjoy it," she exclaims, within minutes of meeting Goede's Danny Miller in a Hollywood sound studio.

That's one of the tamer remarks attributed to her in the play, whose premise does augur comic possibility: Tipsy and irritable, she sashays into the studio to re-record one line of garbled dialogue in the movie, a task that should take all of five minutes. This being the infantile Bankhead, it takes all day. She wants a drink; she demands a smoke; she simply must tell the story of how she arrived in Hollywood with the goal of sleeping with Gary Cooper (who she alleges gave her gonorrhea). Time after time, she flubs the line, a snippet of purple screenwriting that provides a hint at how awful the movie must be.

Her lack of concern for whatever else Danny and the technician in the overhead booth (the deadpan Michael Karl Orenstein) might have to do seems at first a reflection merely of monstrous self-absorption. As the play drives ever more tiresomely toward the trading of dramatic secrets -- and the unlikeliest role for Bankhead, as a kind of dipsomaniac version of Dr. Phil -- we're meant to see her human side, that she might be stalling to help another being in distress.

Goede has the dreary duty here of portraying the scold to Harper's wild child. "Is everything in life just a joke to you?" he harrumphs. Rob Ruggiero's lackluster direction doesn't generate much heat: Although we feel for depressed Danny's unpleasant job, the actor is encouraged to play him so pinched and angry that the revelations about Danny's tangled personal life never have much claim on our sympathy.

Dressed dishily by Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long in one of those soignée dresses with a plunging neckline -- of the type Bette Davis wore in "All About Eve" -- Harper looks the part of overindulged star. Her throaty vowels and exaggerated elocution stamp her as a worthy Bankhead, a value doubled every time she gets off a ripe, ribald joke.

Looped, by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Set, Adrian W. Jones; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Michael Hooker; wig design, Chuck LaPointe. About two hours. Through June 28 at Arena Stage at Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Visit or call 202-488-3300.

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