By Patrick Christiano
Marking her return to Broadway as the scandalous Tallulah Bankhead Valerie Harper’s bravado performance in Mathew Lombardo’s new comedy LOOPED is a laugh out loud riot. Harper’s comic timing is flawless as Tallulah, the impetuous center of the playwright’s witty story about the cult icon, who’s audacious, devil may care hard hitting behavior was legendary. Harper’s hilarious interpretation of the larger than life Tallulah captures the star’s brash essence with a bold confidence that turns the rather slight, but clever play into an engaging romp.
Set in a recording studio circa 1965, where the grand dame now 63 years old, has come to loop one line of dialogue from what would be her last film, the notorious “Die, Die My Darling, the tale unfolds as a very funny confrontation between the uptight film’s editor (Brian Hutchison) and the exploitive Bankhead. Arriving hours late in an inebriated state the southern belle better known for her wild partying than her acting talents may have set the standard for today’s bad girls, and the semi-autobiographical story sets out to prove the point in spades using many of the star’s famous one liners. “Of course I have a drinking problem,” she quips “whenever I’m not drinking honey, it’s a problem.”
With Steve, the sound engineer (Michael Mulheren) bearing witness,Tallulah holds the editor Danny hostage toying with him simply because she has nothing better to do. However, when she discovers his vulnerability by way of a telephone call he takes in her presence, the cat and mouse games move into overdrive with Tallulah out to draw blood. What transpires is sort of a truth game in which Tallulah emerges the victor, but not without spilling some blood of her own.
The play exists primarily as showcase for the enormously gifted Harper, and from the moment she makes her first entrance draped in full-length fur despite the sweltering Los Angeles heat, Harper takes charge tossing off zingers at a break neck pace while drinking, smoking and snorting cocaine. Her mastery of the tonal shifts in the comedy is simply amazing, but if her performance boarders on camp caricature, she still manages to humanize Bankhead in the process carving out a couple of moving moments that display the wounded woman beneath the façade.
Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the petal to the metal and the audience in stitches, but what we miss is Tallulah’s own sense of her iminent death. She has been recently diagnosed with emphysema and given only six months to live, but darling, who wants to face facts when a shocking hedonistic life style has been her rebellious cover.
Looped is playing at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues. For tickets call 212-239-620 or go to loopedtheplay.com.