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Looped -- Theater Review

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Considering her scant film career and that her last stage appearance was more than half a century ago, actress Tallulah Bankhead has proven a surprisingly irresistible subject for stage biographies. Katherine Turner and Tovah Feldshuh already have portrayed the legendary star, and now Valerie Harper gets her turn in "Looped," which just arrived for what is likely to be an abbreviated Broadway run.

Playwright Matthew Lombardo -- who previously demonstrated his affinity for the genre with "Tea at Five," his Katharine Hepburn bio-play starring Kate Mulgrew -- uses a real-life incident for his inspiration. His comedy is set in 1965 at a Los Angeles recording studio, where the imperious diva has arrived to re-record a line for her last film, the horror camp classic "Die! Die! My Darling!" Legend has it that the session lasted eight hours.

There's no doubt that the audience is primed for Harper's flamboyant entrance. Bursting into the room wearing sunglasses and a fur coat (despite it being summer in L.A.), her Bankhead instantly affirms her trademark outrageousness by announcing, "Fuck Los Angeles!"

And so it goes for the next 90 minutes or so, with an increasingly booze- and coke-addled Tallulah repeatedly failing to get the line right, much to the consternation of Danny (Brian Hutchison), the film's uptight editor who has been given the thankless task of overseeing the difficult star.

Bankhead was an endlessly entertaining character, which the evening exploits by having her deliver an endless series of profane one-liners. For instance, when Danny makes the mistake of innocently moving her bag, Bankhead screams, "Touching a woman's purse is like touching her vagina!" before following it up with a perfectly timed and delivered dirty joke.

But all of this comic shtick starts to wear thin pretty quickly, and the playwright's efforts to inject drama into the proceedings -- by having Tallulah reminisce about and deliver excerpts from her portrayal of Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire," and with Danny's anguished account of a tragic episode from his past -- are even less successful. While credit must be given for his avoidance of the usual solo lecture-to-the-audience format of most bio-plays, he has not replaced it here with anything remotely substantial.

Effectively burying her own persona, a bewigged Harper delivers a formidable performance as Bankhead, successfully imitating the star's gravelly, ravaged voice and patrician Southern accent. Not surprisingly, her comic timing is as sharp as ever, and she consistently garners big laughs with her razor-sharp delivery of the endlessly profane dialogue. Hutchison is less impressive, overdoing his admittedly badly written character's incessant emotional outbursts. Michael Mulheren is a delight as the sardonic, seen-it-all soundman, but he's unfortunately underutilized.

Adrian W. Jones' period-perfect setting is nicely rendered, especially when transformed by Ken Billington's lighting into New Orleans while Bankhead recreates her Blanche DuBois.

Venue: Lyceum Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Valerie Harper, Brian Hutchison, Michael Mulheren
Playwright: Matthew Lombardo
Director: Rob Ruggiero
Sets: Adrian W. Jones
Costumes: William Ivey Long
Lighting: Ken Billington
Sound: Michael Hooker, Peter Fitzgerald