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East 14th

Looped

Valerie Harper gives a tour-de-force performance as Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo's sardonic two-hander.

By Los Angeles
Chad Allen and Valerie Harper in Looped
(© Craig Schwartz)
Chad Allen and Valerie Harper in Looped
(© Craig Schwartz)
Tallulah Bankhead, that grande dame of theater and crassness, has been resurrected in Looped, Matthew Lombardo's sardonic comedy bowing at the Pasadena Playhouse and featuring a tour-de-force turn by Valerie Harper as the legendary actress.

The work is set in 1965, when Bankhead has long descended into the has-been territory of z-grade films such as Die! Die! My Darling!, another in a long line of 1960s rip-offs of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. That film has just finished shooting, and one line had been ruined by Tallulah's drunken antics. While dubbing this line should take just five minutes, the looping session instead lasts eight endless hours as a harried studio representative (Chad Allen) must battle with the star's flagrant insults, combat her alcoholism and constant snorts of cocaine, and steer clear of her continuous needling into his private affairs.

Director Rob Ruggiero smartly turns this two-person comedy into a sparring match, even if Bankhead gets most of the zingers. When delusions cloud Bankhead's mind, Ruggiero visually matches her consternation with a brilliant set alteration (thanks to designer Adrian W Jones) where the drab studio suddenly melds into the saucy streets of New Orleans from A Streetcar Named Desire. (Bankhead turned down the role of Blanche DuBois although Tennessee Williams reportedly wrote the role for her.)

Moreover, while Lombardo steals many quotable lines from Bankhead's own salty lips, such as "Cocaine isn't habit forming. I should know; I've been using it for years," he also focuses on the pain behind the saucy dialogue.

Harper is exquisite at capturing both the brazen attitude of a rebel as well as the unbearable sadness of a woman at the end of her days who has accomplished only one-eighth of her potential. Although she wanders onto the stage smashed and scattershot, slurring her lines and grabbing at a drink as a baby would a pacifier, this is not a standard drunkard impersonation. Harper digs deep into the role, finding the essence of this troubled woman, and never begging for applause or pity.

Allen's work is far less satisfying. He doesn't know what to do with his hands, and his voice sounds petulant when wound up and exactly the same when he finally unleashes his wrath. Perhaps, it's simply not easy to stand next to such a force of nature, something Bankhead's co-stars learned the hard way.


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