Bankhead was a big celebrity when I was growing up in the 1950s. Everyone did imitations of her husky voice and extravagant style (“Hello, daaahling,” my sister and I would say to one another, just the way we’d seen Tallulah do on TV.) But she was more than just a voice and an attitude. The scion of a powerful Alabama family (her grandfather was a U.S. Senator and father was the Speaker of the House from 1936-1940) she was a celebrated actress in Hollywood and on both the London and New York stages, where she originated the roles of Regina in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes and Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth.
Still it was her classic beauty, her potty mouth, and her naughty behavior (she did drugs, drank like a sailor and had sex like one too—with both men and women) that made her infamous in her day. But who under 50 remembers or cares about any of that now? The 20-somethings sitting in the row in front of Joy and me sat stone-faced through the entire two-hours of Looped.
Unlike most theatrical biographies this isn’t a one-woman show. The plot, based on a real event, centers around the day that Bankhead had to record, or “loop”, some dialog for the 1965 horror movie “Die! Die! My Darling!” and arrived at the studio so drunk or “looped” that she couldn’t get through it. That, of course, is barely enough to sustain a “Saturday Night Live” skit so playwright Matthew Lombardo adds a subplot for the guy assigned to oversee the recording session, who is besieged by his own demons.
But most of the humor depends on your knowledge of Tallulah’s trademark witticisms. Alas, that’s not enough either. “It’s camp, that’s what we’re watching,” griped the fifty-something woman behind me during intermission. “The woman had great intellect and this play has no intellect,” agreed her companion, pulling out her phone to Google Tallulah and prove her point.
Looped might have fared better had Lombardo found a way to dig beneath the Tallulah caricature to look at the real cost of being a free-thinking woman in straight-laced mid-century America ("I'd rather be strongly wrong than weakly right," she once said). That might have allowed the story to resonate whether you knew anything about Bankhead or not. Instead, he goes for the easy jokes ("Of course I have a drinking problem. Whenever I'm not drinking? Oh, honey, it's a problem.") and the easy sentiment (Lombardo’s Tallulah laments her decision not to have children.)
Harper's husband Tony Cacciotti is the lead producer on the show, and the actress has done everything she can—both on stage and off—to make it work. Needless to say, she nails the punchlines and there are hints here and there that she could have delivered in the dramatic area too if she'd had better material to work with. She’s also given interviews to media outlets of all stripes and types and appeared on every possible talk show. She even went on YouTube last week to pitch a “Best Tallulah Impression Contest.” But, as Bankhead once said, "It's one of the tragic ironies of the theatre that only one man in it can count on steady work - the night watchman."