Checking e-mails. Watching TV. Cleaning my house. Eating dinner. This is a short list of the things I wished I'd done instead of watching Tallulah, which opened last night at the Colonial Theatre. I knew the minute that the play started with a toilet flush and the line "F**k Brando, just f**k him!" that we were in for one interesting evening.
Screen luminary Kathleen Turner stars in this new one-woman play written by Sandra Ryan Heyward which attempts to give us a portrait of the legendary screen actress Tallulah Bankhead. The problem with Tallulah is not at all Ms. Turner's performance. In fact, she is quite marvelous. The problem lies with Ms. Heyward's writing. Through a series of bad one-liners and repeated jokes involving Bankhead's sagging bosom, Heyward unfortunately does not give us a decent portrait of this great star. Instead, Heyward allows us to witness a pish-posh of stories about Bankhead's life with no through-line. I often felt as though I was watching a bad Virginia Woolf novel exploding on the stage.
The first act of Tallulah gives us a view of Bankhead preparing for a large party to take place at her home that evening. It is never truly clarified why we are in Bankhead's bedroom at all. In one-person plays, the audience is made to be a character in the play and the person on stage has a reason for talking to us. Tallulah never accomplishes this. With Turner making direct requests to the audience for applause and asking us questions such as "How do I look?," I could not comprehend if we were supposed to be watching Bankhead performing a play about herself onstage or if we were actually in her bedroom.
Another question I found myself asking is: why are we here? Heyward's writing never gives us a conflict or a resolution. We simply watch Bankhead reminisce while getting dressed for her party and in the second act watch her ramble on about her life in a post-drunken stupor at four o'clock in the morning. At this point, she ponders such in-depth questions as: "When did I become a joke?" and "Why must I always screw up my life?" I left feeling unfulfilled and wishing I had been given a better representation of the exuberant personality of Tallulah. Heyward's writing often shies away from drama, pulling us out of potentially moving moments with bad jokes, much like many of the sitcoms on television today.
Despite the flawed writing, Ms. Turner gives a knockout performance. She is simply captivating and engaging throughout the evening. Turner's sexiness and husky voice produce a Tallulah filled with vitality and sometimes despair. Turner makes the best of the writing and makes even the worst one-liners sound funny. It is obvious she enjoys the role as we watch her sip champagne and smoke cigarettes with the same panache that Tallulah was well known for.
Turner was at her best when the sound system suddenly failed in act one. She kept her composure entirely, even through bouts of garish buzzing from the speakers. In fact, she was without any microphone support for much of act one and it was simply delicious to hear her sultry voice drifting through the theatre unamplified. Another problem with the sound was the music used throughout the play. The obviously synthesized pieces take the audience right out of the period of the play and back into 2000. You would think a bit of money could be spent to have these tracks recorded by a true orchestra.
Bob Mackie's costumes go to great lengths to flaunt Turner's still beautiful figure using plunging necklines and terrific colors to great effect. The only problem I found here is that the colors in Mackie's costumes sometimes clashed with those in the lush scenic design by Derek McLane. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski is quite simplistic, yet very effective with subtle color changes perfect for this type of show. Director Michael Lessac has done a decent job keeping Turner's movements natural, fluid and he makes good use of the space given.
Late in act two, Tallulah makes the statement that "being a piece of work is not easy." Turner makes portraying the piece of work that was Tallulah Bankhead look easy, but I assure you that starring in the piece of work that is Tallulah is definitely not easy for this wonderful actress coping with mundane writing.