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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Tallulah
the Woman and the Play



In the short space of three months, I have seen two actresses portray the divine Tallulah Bankhead. I can now compare the two, plus add my own reminiscences of spending the day with the actress in the early ’50s. What I saw on the stage was entirely different from the Tallulah I knew.

Tovah Feldshuh played Tallulah as a very vulgar charade. Feldshuh exaggerated Ms. Bankhead's drinking and it was only in the last twenty minutes of the New York production that Ms. Feldshun put a human face on the legendary actress. Kathleen Turner tones down the excessiveness of Tallulah in the current touring show. At least she does not drink as much. As for acting the role, Kathleen is a far greater actress on the stage. She has a sinister way of talking about sex and cocaine. There is that glint in her eye when she talks about these topics.

When Ms. Turner prowls onto the stage, you know you are seeing an actress of the first order. Your attention immediately goes to her, in her stunning Bob Mackey robe. It is a deluxe black dressing gown that shows plenty of leg and decolletage.

The play is set in 1948 and Tallulah is appearing in Jean Cocteau’s Eagle Has Two Heads with Marlon Brando. She is to host a fund raiser for over 350 guests at her home in Bedford, New York, for incumbent President Harry S. Truman. The first act is prior to the party, where she fusses over all the details of the party while sipping champagne. She does a lot of dishing of Marlon Brando in this act; she wants to replace him as her co-star in a production she is doing because he acts the role differently every night. The only person she can get on short notice is Helmut Dantine who had been starring in a play with Shirley Booth so Tallulah says to the audience, “If he played under Shirley Booth he ought to be flatter than a pancake”. I could see the insecurity of the actress even with her outrageous bravado.

The second act takes place the morning after the party which had been a disappointing evening. Here she turns to her favorite drink, Old Grand Dad. She knows she has made a fool of herself by getting rip roaring drunk at the party. She knows she has become a caricature of herself. During that second act, the phone rings and it is Tennessee Williams on the other end. Apparently, Tennessee has gotten into some sort of fight at a gay bar in the East Village. He is crying and she tries to console him. She talks about Streetcar ... and how she thought she might make a great Blanche but says, "I am just too big for the role."

This version of Tallulah does come up with some great zingers. She talks about openly wooing men and women, from Gary Cooper to Greta Garbo. She says, "How could I rule out an entire sex? New York isn’t that big".

The main problem with this production does not lie with Ms. Turner, but with the script itself. It falls flat in many places and it fails to give us insight into this larger than life character. It is just a series of one liners that trail off to no end. There is no continuity in the writing. And, as a one-actor show, there is no one to bounce the lines off either.

There were times on the opening day when I could not hear all of the lines. Turner raced throughout the lines and stepped on the zingers. She seemed ill at ease up on that stage. The dear bits of buoyancy came few and far between in this weighty 90 minute affair.

Tallulah’s boudoir set is very lush, beautifully decorated with draped swags of grayish blue and a huge round bed with a white satin head board. Sometimes I would look at the set when Tallulah started meandering through her thoughts.

Bottom line here is that Ms. Turner does not capture the true Tallulah any more than Ms. Feldshuh and maybe no one can. The Tallulah I knew was not as tacky as these actresses portrayal. Ms Bankhead was svelte, sophisticated and had a much greater wit with just a slight hint of crudeness. This script needs more work if it is to succeed in New York.

The production runs through Feb 11 at:
The Curran Theatre.
Tickets are $33 to $57 a seat.
Call 415-512-7770 for tickets,
or visit Best of Broadway-SF.com.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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