Matthew Lombardo’s Looped, now showing at Vintage Theatre in a regional premiere, is a variation on a fairly familiar theme: A larger-than-life, viciously funny female protagonist who’s aging, filled with regret and coming to the end of her career — or who actually passed that end some time ago — looks back. Tallulah Bankhead’s days of glory stretched from the 1930s to the early ’50s, when she was still considered a serious and important actor; in 1947, Tennessee Williams created the role of Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire expressly for Bankhead (she turned it down, and it catapulted Jessica Tandy to stardom). But these days, those who recognize the name often see Bankhead as a kind of parody figure, along the lines of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? era. Or perhaps in a more recent incarnation: Joanna Lumley’s Patsy Stone in Absolutely Fabulous.
The portrayal of Bankhead in Looped both sharpens the caricature and adds a touch of depth and feeling. The story, which is based on a true incident, takes place in 1965. Bankhead has been asked to return to the studio to re-record a single botched line from what will turn out to be her last movie, Die! Die! My Darling! Eight druggy and alcohol-soaked hours ensue, with soundman Steve fretting in his booth, editor Danny Miller growing ever more exasperated, and Bankhead spewing out lewd jokes and insults like a powerfully damaged garden sprinkler, before that one line is safely in the can.
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Deborah Persoff is the strongest Tallulah Bankhead I can imagine, complete with the slightly hoarse voice, narcissistic posing and nasty but gleefully witty barbs, and she’s ably supported by Christian Mast as Danny and David Bond-Trimble playing Steve. The first act is a hoot. Though the script isn’t subtle or deep, Persoff manages to communicates a genuine undercurrent of loss and sadness. Bankhead did finally play Blanche in 1955 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, and there’s a moment when she relives that experience in Looped, remembering herself coming on stage intent on embodying Williams’s tragic heroine, hearing the audience laugh, and realizing they’ve come not for fragile Blanche but for the self-created diva, Tallulah. Persoff communicates the character’s ambivalence as she wavers between a desire to serve her art and the instincts telling her to give the audience what it wants. Which, of course, she ultimately does.
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We learn at one point that Danny saw this performance, and a little later that he has always admired Bankhead’s serious work and been distressed by her bourbon-soaked decline. But in the second act, Lombardo’s play falters, moving from hilarious caricature to sentimental soul-searching. Danny has spent most of the evening angrily sparring with Bankhead (watching, I wondered if any film editor would be as directly critical and abrasive with a star, no matter how far past her prime she might be), but now, having had a couple of drinks, he’s confessing his own griefs and weeping beside her on the sofa. Does she soften and offer comfort? Well, in her own brief and limited way, yes — and Persoff makes it moving. But the script is failing the actors. Danny has never been fleshed out as a character, so when he tells his sad story, it doesn’t move us as it should. And while it’s nice to see these antagonists finding a few moments of understanding, those moments aren't convincing.
Tennessee Williams lambasted Bankhead after seeing her Coconut Grove performance, and gave her several suggestions. She took them to heart. When she reprised Blanche in New York some time later, he was in the audience and enthralled, according to a piece he wrote for the New York Times afterward. “I’m not ashamed to say that I shed tears almost all the way through,” he said, “and that when the play was finished, I rushed up to her and fell to my knees at her feet.”
That diva thing isn't confined to the ladies.
Looped, presented by Vintage Theatre through December 15, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.com