My very patient subscription partner and I finally saw Looped at Arena Stage last Wednesday. The play features Valerie Harper of Rhoda fame as Tallulah Bankhead.
The playwright, Matthew Lombardo, extracts an episode from the Bankhead legend in which it took hours for the actress to dub (aka “loop”) a single line of dialogue from her final movie, Die, Die, My Darling, as the basis of the evening. The first act feels like the playwright took the Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations entries for Bankhead and strung them together with as little connective tissue as he could get away with. However, considering that Bankhead was probably the second most quotable woman of the 20th Century after Dorothy Parker, it is at least an entertaining strategy.
The second act of the play feels oddly disjointed in the theater, as Looped seems to re-focus on the film editor working with Bankhead. It becomes a somewhat pedestrian coming-out tale, with the Bankhead character becoming a Dr. Phil*-esque mentor to our closeted film editor. I have to admit that in the theater, my reactions to both acts had an undertone of “haven’t we seen this before?” to them. However, at a distance, I wonder if the playwright has an interesting point about the fact that the example of outrageous icons openly living their lives is what has allowed gay men to get out of their closets and live their own lives.
There have been a number of bio-plays of Bankhead there have been over the years; actresses portraying her on stage include Tovah Feldshuh, Helen Gallagher, and Kathleen Turner. And why not? It gives an actress of a certain age a chance to chew to swan around in a glamorous gown, drink, smoke and chew the (presumably low-carb) scenery. Harper makes one forget Rhoda about 10 seconds into the role, and does an amazing job of driving the show.
And speaking of the scenery, Adrian Jones’s set has one very nifty effect that I was glad to see repeated in Act II.
And I have to admit that while I was being a little poopy during the play, the audience around me was enthralled. Which actually tended to increase my poopiness.
*I wish I could take credit for this observation, but it belongs to Peter Marks in his review of the show.