Theater Reviews

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The first words spoken by Valerie Harper in "Looped" -- "F*** Los Angeles!" -- let us know that Rhoda Morgenstern is not in Kansas anymore.

Harper has found the second role of a lifetime in Matthew Lombardo's riveting new play about actress Tallulah Bankhead, one of the first -- and surely the wittiest -- of all the celebrity bad girls to follow. Bankhead was snorting coke, popping pills, drinking and partying all night, screwing both sexes with abandon and not wearing underwear long before the current crop of witless wonders, and she was doing it with style and panache. What's more, she actually had talent.

Bankhead is the sort of character easy to impersonate or caricature -- she was over the top whenever possible -- but playing her between the lines is another story. You have to dive deep into that steamy Southern psyche to locate the pain and truth, and Harper does this in a wonderfully grounded, finely nuanced performance that is always natural and layered even when Bankhead is at her most outrageous and extravagant.

The play -- loosely based on a true incident that was recorded on tape -- is set in an L.A. recording studio in 1965 where Bank-head has come to loop one line from her final film, "Die, Die, My Darling." What should have taken five minutes instead took more than eight hours, and therein lies the rest of the tale Lombardo has imagined.

Bankhead and the looping director, Danny Miller (Chad Allen), take an almost instant dislike to each other. Bankhead keeps mangling the line and doing a hundred other things to drive Miller crazy. Meanwhile, she's getting boozier, woozier and higher from all the alcohol and drugs she's imbibing. At the same time, her savage wit is unleashed on Miller, who is just the sort of tight-ass suit she delights in tormenting.

Act 1 is about as funny as it gets in the theater, with Harper getting off some splendid one-liners plus a slew of vulgarities of great originality. In Act 2, the play shifts tone and opens up the psyche of both characters for further examination. The material is interesting and enlightening but also contrived as the revelations and confessions keep tumbling out of both. At times, it's apparent that Miller is no more than a device to draw out the worst -- and best -- Bankhead has to offer.

Harper is at her best in two scenes when she summons up Blanche DuBois -- a part Tennessee Williams wrote for Bankhead, which she unwisely turned down much to her later regret -- and brings her to life with a haunting clarity. Indeed, there are many parallels between the lives of these two Southern women that the play brings to our attention. The acting chops Harper displays are world class.

Michael Karl Orenstein appears as Steve, the sound engineer. Rob Ruggiero helms this seductive, funny and frequently moving piece.
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