Fans of Rhoda Morgenstern look out, because Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead is not your mama’s Rhoda. Harper achieves the affect and mannerisms of the husky-voiced contrary star past her prime and gives life a big kick in the pants.
Similar to the set-up of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the set consists of a recording studio where a film editor and technician anxiously await the arrival of a notoriously difficult female performer who needs to accomplish one simple task; a line was muffled in the film, “Die, Die My Darling,” and the legendary Ms. Bankhead needs to “loop” the line, or record it in the studio for editing into the film. Sounds simple enough, but nothing is simple in this true story of a legend whose quips and personae were so outrageous that they keep her image alive decades after her incendiary life passed on to glory. Valerie Harper channels the very essence and being of the character, and with a wonderfully revealing script by Matthew Lombardo, brings her quirks and passions vividly to life.
Tallulah Bankhead. The very name conjures up a deliberate stance filled with attitude, a glamorous profile, wafting cigarette smoke, and an ever-present drink in a hand dripping with bling. Harper delivers all that and more. It’s August in LA, and she strides into the scene in a full length mink, complaining that if she knew it would be this hot she would have selected her Other fur. Lombardo’s script slowly reveals glimpses of the woman behind the quips, by skillfully using the film editor Danny to help. “Everybody has a story,” she says, and at the drop of a hat, even in mid-argumentative swing, she’ll drop one from out of nowhere. And boy, are they doozies. There’s a particularly fascinating one about how Tennessee Williams based Blanche DuBois on her, that must be seen to be appreciated. She is loud, lewd, and profane, a perfect cocktail mix for the gates of hell and in one of several masterful turns in the script, Lombardo shows how the star’s image overtakes her reality
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In Harper’s perfect pitch delivery, Bankhead’s notoriety, alcohol and drug induced bravado, hurt, pain, insecurities, and passion all come to life. Harper commands the stage dressed in a gorgeously flaring azul blue dress (credit costumer William Ivey Long), plunging neckline and cinched waist set off with a huge diamond broach. That dress nearly takes on a life of its own, swirling behind Harper with each purposeful stride across the stage, entering and exiting, draped across the stool or couch, or even along the floor, because Harper leaves no corner of the stage untouched in her physical portrayal of the character’s vulnerabilities and foibles. Accepting the studio’s horrible scotch because “decent bourbon is not available,” her subtle speech pattern slurs and steps lurch ever so slightly as her tipsiness increases. Her drunken exit ending the first Act, as Blanche DuBois, is piercingly effective, as the backset lights reveal the staircases and platforms of old New Orleans in dark nightmare blue.
With increasing intensity, playwright Lombardo peels away more layers in Act two to reveal the tender vulnerabilities for both Tallulah Bankhead and Danny, played by Broadway veteran actor Jay Goede. Goede is solid as his character deflects the sparks of the incendiary Bankhead. He listens patiently to her many tirades, and creates just the right amount of tension in their exchanges. Already living like there’s no tomorrow puts Bankhead in an awkward position when informed that she’s only got six months to live. If nothing else, it gives her leverage to get the absolute truth from others on demand, and that’s what happens in her interchange with Danny.
Like a dancer who must anticipate his partner’s every move, Goede provides a steady hand as they both reveal more than they ever anticipated, bantering and cursing each other with contempt only to gravitate towards each other’s truthful revelations with the perfect rhythm of a lyrical tango. Danny rides the cresting waves of this complicated woman, revealing his own secrets along the way, shedding old misconceptions in the script’s interesting turn.
Bankhead’s movie star status did not shield her from painful childhood experiences or from being parodied and humiliated. Even so, in a telling moment, Bankhead confides that if she had a second chance at life, she would do it all again, only sooner — talk about going down swinging!
Lombardo’s script, while considered contrived by some, gives Harper and Goede free range to explore the play’s life messages about fortitude, integrity, and truth. All the technical elements work effectively, as does a third character, the barely seen sound editor (Michael Orenstein) whose steady, disembodied voice and silhouette in the sound booth add consistent authenticity to the work.
Once again the reliable Arena Stage is at the helm to help polish a relatively new script for its anticipated Broadway run. Valerie Harper’s portrayal in Looped will easily be a future watershed event for those lucky enough to have seen her. Don’t be left out.
written by Matthew Lombardo
directed by Rob Ruggiero
produced by Arena Stage in association withTony Cacciotti and David Steiner
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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