Valerie Harper in Looped
(© Carol Rosegg)
Valerie Harper in Looped
(© Carol Rosegg)
"I'm bisexual -- buy me something, and I'm sexual," says Tallulah Bankhead, portrayed with impressive authority by Valerie Harper in Matthew Lombardo's Looped, now at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre under Rob Ruggiero's direction. That wisecrack is just one of innumerable off-color witticisms that register high on the laugh-o-meter -- and the shock-o-meter -- to the delight of an audience swept along by a lady whose vocabulary is salted with obscenities. While Lombardo goes far to prove the outrageous good company Bankhead could be, he doesn't go far enough to include a rounded portrait of the fabulous, though severely conflicted, life she led.

The play's set-up is that during the filming of 1965's Die! Die! My Darling!, the last of her not many movies, Bankhead garbled a crucial line of dialogue. Now she must "loop" it in a studio, presided over by film editor Danny Miller (Brian Hutchison, occasionally overacting) and sound engineer Steve (Michael Mulheren). The hitch is that not only does Bankhead -- soigne in a very Bankhead dress and mink provided by the shrewd William Ivey Long -- arrive late for the session, but she's drunk, chain-smoking cigarettes, popping pills, and sniffing cocaine, and generally uncooperative.

Averse to getting to the task at hand, Bankhead finds numerous ways to procrastinate (and is interrupted at least once by a phone call from her sister Eugenia, who's in some sort of trouble in Morocco). She even staggers out of the room for a three-hour walkabout (which takes place during the intermission), and the disappearance becomes frustrating enough to Miller that he begins to lose what little patience he had with the self-absorbed actress.

Indeed, in the second act, something very strange happens: Looped suddenly veers from being a spotlighted look at Bankhead to become a drama in which the now-sobered-up celebrity turns analyst for Miller's impromptu patient. She gets him to reveal a couple of huge secrets and endure a breakdown (or breakthrough if you will) of the sort that takes place regularly in any psychiatrist's office. But what's the point of turning a concentrated look back at Bankhead into a play that's really more about a secondary character's psychological enlightenment at Bankhead's hand?

Moreover, just think of the entertainment Lombardo could have emerged had he not simply skimmed the fabulous Bankhead facts and provided a fuller picture of her. For example, he only refers glancingly to her upbringing as "the daughter of a congressman and Speaker of the House, the granddaughter of a United States senator"; he barely recalls her reign in the 1902s as a theater goddess; and he makes little mention of the myriad renowned people she knew throughout her life.

The one interlude he does focus on is Bankhead's failed go at Blanche DuBois in the Coconut Grove Playhouse's production of A Streetcar Named Desire in the 1950s. He contrives to have her do a bit of the challenging role -- which Tennessee Williams wrote for her and which she originally turned down -- with Ken Billington's lights fading set designer Adrian W. Jones' record studio walls so that an impression of New Orleans fretwork glows through. But it's all too cursory.

New Yorker writer Brendan Gill once wrote that the loquacious Bankhead wrote a good-sized novel every 24 hours. In Looped, Lombardo only supplies a far-too-truncated chapter.