Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 14, 2010
Looped by Matthew Lombardo. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Sets by Adrian W. Jones. Costumes by William Ivey Long. Lighting by Ken Billington. Sound by Michael Hooker & Peter Fitzgerald. Wig designer Charles Lapointe. Cast: Valerie Harper, with Brian Hutchison and Michael Mulheren.
His idea is that Bankhead, the one-time empress of (sometimes unintentional) camp, wasn’t all that different from the closeted gay men for whom she was an idol in more ways than one. A free-and-oh-so-easy bisexual, Bankhead led the liberated, libational life that society in the mid-20th century insisted ordinary people couldn’t. For Lombardo, Bankhead’s upending of every convention not only made her the motivational centerpiece for the gay rights movement, but also masked an even deeper pain: that her grotesquely affected, gossip-drowned glamour impeded what at one point was - and should have ended as - a remarkable career.
But does anyone truly care about Bankhead’s inner agonies? Or is her work - which counted originating truly impressive roles like Regina in The Little Foxes and Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth, and Connie Porter in the Alfred Hitchcock film Lifeboat - pebbled with her trademark outlandishness perhaps enough? Judging strictly from how Lombardo has assembled his pieces, the answer is unquestionably the latter: Looped is incapacitatingly funny when Bankhead is allowed to be herself, but coma-inducing whenever the psychoanalysis starts.
The reason for this is simple: the setup is far too tantalizing to fail. Set in summer of 1965, on the infamous day Bankhead ventured into a Los Angeles sound stage to rerecord a single line of dialogue from what would be her final film, Die! Die! My Darling, the play (which is loosely based on actual audio evidence) imagines and then unleashes every occurrence that can distract Bankhead from her task or detract from her performance. Even the 20 mind-juicing words of her needed line - "And so Patricia, as I was telling you that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me” - are primed for comedy.
Harper does not waste a drop of the potential, whether in character or out (as much as Bankhead ever was). Adopting a broken-beauty-queen look, complete with a satiny, out-of-occasion dress (designed from pure sass by William Ivey Long), and speaking as though her mouth is forever full of live eels, Harper owns the stage from the moment she trundles onto it clad in sunglasses and a floor-length fur. Whether sucking down alcohol, swallowing her lines, or spitting out uproarious aphorisms (“Oh course I have a drinking problem. Whenever I’m not drinking? Honey, it’s a problem”), she never looks or sounds less than the absolute, sputtering star she’s playing.
Her ministrations and mastications of that line reek with both the knowledge of its pointlessness and the authority to convince you that Bankhead had a reason for saying them in the first place. Her methods of dealing with both the audio editor, Danny (Brian Hutchison), and the sound engineer, Steve (Michael Mulheren), designated with the task of extracting her performance before finally wrapping the film, have all the subtlety (if rarely the neatness) of controlled building demolitions. Yet Harper, defying the odds of anyone given such an opportunity, never goes too far, and thus never crosses completely over into caricature.
Those indomitable yet self-aware qualities are exactly what you want from Bankhead, and as long as you get them Looped is an irresistible vehicle. But when things start getting touchy-feely, as when Bankhead digresses into her memories to unleash the disastrous Blanche Du Bois (a role she insists Tennessee Williams wrote for her) she once played in Florida, or when Danny’s own demons begin dragging Bankhead even further into the muck, the show gets really tedious, really quickly.
The fun of watching any comic monster comes from seeing how the humanity slowly cracks the façade from within, telling you volumes without actually saying anything at first. But Lombardo has employed no such subtlety in addressing Bankhead’s own professional and emotional failures, and even less in explaining the hows and whys of Danny’s own failed marriage (he is himself an enormous Bankhead fan, if that gives you a hint). And because the thematic links between the two are tenuous to begin with, their forced uniting under the umbrella of a completely unrelated set of circumstances has no tangible emotional impact.
Harper isn’t the source of the problem; neither is Hutchison, who’s a bit flat but hardly unlikeable as Danny; and director Rob Ruggiero has created a clean, excess-free production (on Adrian W. Jones’s stark studio set) that always frames the focus just where Lombardo wants it. But because that focus so often strays from where it seems it should belong, what should be a completely rollicking evening is frequently a rough and rumpled one.
Lombardo managed rather with his Katharine Hepburn show, Tea at Five, even if that was little more than an excuse to show off Kate Muglrew’s flawless impersonation of that particular screen great. One can understand his not wanting to repeat himself here, even with another luxurious lead and one-of-a-kind performer to work with. But if Tea at Five wasn’t life-changing theatre, it at least knew itself, its audience, and its subjects well enough to understand what ought to be left out. Lacking that knowledge, this play becomes more about the Bankhead mythos than the woman herself. That could inspire a fine, funny, and thoughtful play. Looped, in literal effect, hits only one out of three.