Friday, May 3, 2013

REVIEW OF LOOPED: Stefanie Powers stars as iconic Bankhead

Play written by Matthew Lombardo
Review by Don L. Stradley

The national tour of Looped hit Boston this week for a six day run at the Cutler Majestic Theater. The tidy production, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is brisk and funny and does what it's supposed to do, more or less. Stefanie Powers has taken over the role of Tallulah Bankhead, a part made famous by Valerie Harper during the show’s 2010 Broadway run. Of course, some would say the role of Tallulah Bankhead was originally made famous by Tallulah Bankhead.

Looped takes place in 1965 when Bankhead allegedly spent an afternoon in a sound studio recording, or “looping,” a botched line of dialogue from Die! Die! My Darling!, a Gothic horror that would be her last movie. A drunk and stubborn Bankhead clashes with uptight sound editor Danny Miller (Brian Hutchinson), with Bankhead turning an easy day’s work into a few hours of sheer hell, complete with secret confessions, and a bunch of other things that rarely happen in real life but have a way of taking place on stage.

One would think that writing about Tallulah Bankhead would give a writer license to kill, but playwright Matthew Lombardo takes a softer route. Looped is one of those plays where rivals learn about each other and gradually become friends. Like Zorba the Greek, wild old Tallulah teaches timid Danny to let his hair down. “Take a trip,” she says during the play’s hoary denouement. “Take a drink. Do something. Be alive.” Such a predictable sentiment is disappointing, considering the play’s first act had been good, bawdy entertainment. Then again, this is the Bankhead of Lombardo’s fantasies, a kind of “Mother Tallulah” who absolves sexually confused men of their sins and tells them to live it up.

The casting of Powers is ironic, since Powers had actually been Bankhead’s co-star in Die! Die! My Darling! nearly 50 years ago. Powers, 68, does a passable impression of Bankhead. The only problem is that Powers looks marvelously fit at a time when Bankhead is supposed to be an alcoholic drug addict who has been diagnosed with only a few months to live. Powers seems more like a middle-aged party girl then a sickly old cokehead.

Still, Powers has fun with the role, and even when Lombardo’s script forces her into some heavy-handed reveries, Powers is game.

The best scene in the play is when Bankhead reminisces about her bungled performance as Blanche Dubois in a Florida production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She angrily recalls an audience of gay men at the Coconut Grove Theater laughing at her every line. It’s a remarkable moment, with Powers hinting at the disdain Bankhead may have felt for her camp followers.

A thought provoking play could have been written about a performer at odds with her audience, but judging by the laughter at the Majestic, Lombardo gave the crowd what it wanted: a night out with a vulgar old lady.

Etcetera – A bored Irish cop was stationed outside the theater. He couldn't hide his indifference as he was being instructed to guard the back entrance so Ms. Powers could make her escape after the show.

“What’s the big deal about her?” he asked. “Does she have some kind of cult following?”

He was told that Ms. Powers had been in the hit TV series Hart to Hart.

“When was that?” he said, “Thirty friggin’ years ago?”

Sometimes it takes a Boston cop to shed a little light on show business.

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