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Stefanie Powers brings Tallulah Bankhead to life in 'Looped' at the Hippodrome

In the second and best installment of “The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour,” the follow-up to “I Love Lucy,” the guest star is Tallulah Bankhead, playing herself as a new neighbor of the Ricardos and Mertzes.

During a clash of temperaments, Lucy mockingly imitates Tallulah’s famed basso voice and “dahling”-peppered phrases, leading to this exchange:

Tallulah: “You do a revolting impression of me.”

Lucy: “So do you.”

There was a lot of truth in that funny scene, and it finds a telling echo in Matthew Lombardo’s entertaining play about Bankhead, “Looped,” currently onstage at the Hippodrome starring a persuasive Stefanie Powers.

Bankhead, a brilliant, if self-destructive, talent, gradually became something of a caricature of herself, a fate not uncommon among some other unusually distinctive actresses of her day. And that’s how she first enters in “Looped,” like a bad impersonation.

The play was inspired by a true incident in 1965 during the post-production phase of Bankhead’s last movie, “Die! Die! My Darling!” The action is confined to a sound studio where the star is supposed to record a line of dialogue that must be matched to a scene on film — the process is called “looping.”  

In between endless, aborted takes, Tallulah revels in demonstrating her bad habits. “We all have vices,” she says. “Mine just all come out to play at the same time.”

She’s certainly fabulous company, especially if you like witty (and often unabashedly vulgar) one-liners. And Bankhead gets plenty of them here, almost all with an authentic ring.

Bit by bit, though, the cynical veneer is gradually peeled away from this “deliciously disgraceful” woman, as she describes herself to Danny (Brian Hutchinson), an exacerbated film editor in the room.

Beneath the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, the tendency to play to the camera (even when there isn’t one), the booze and drugs, the flippancy about sex, you sense there is plenty of the real deal left. Not just the star quality, but the human. As Danny discovers, Tallulah is someone well worth getting to know better.

“Looped” originated with Valerie Harper in mind. She earned a Tony Award nomination after the play’s short stint on Broadway in 2010, and was to have reprised the role in the national tour that has brought the play to Baltimore.

Harper withdrew in January to take what was vaguely labeled “medical leave.” This week, the popular actress revealed she has terminal brain cancer.

I enjoyed Harper’s vivacious performance as Bankhead when Washington’s Arena Stage presented “Looped” in 2009. And, in light of what has happened, I’ve been thinking about one of the best lines from the work, which Harper delivered wonderfully: “There is always going to be pain in life. But suffering? That one is optional.”

It could not have been easy for Powers to step into the show on short notice under these circumstances, especially since she and Harper are friends who both made it through bouts with lung cancer.

Powers succeeds in creating a physically convincing version of Tallulah (OK, maybe a head-thrust-back pose is overdone). And although she occasionally slips into a voice closer to Katharine Hepburn than the “Alabama Foghorn,” as Bankhead was dubbed, Powers leaves an impressive vocal mark nonetheless.

Above all, she convincingly conjures up the combination of tough and tender, snarky and wise. This Tallulah is clearly a woman who has seen it all, done it all and can’t quite understand why it’s not as much fun as it once was.

Powers brings a remarkable personal connection to this play, having been Bankhead’s costar in “Die! Die! My Darling!” The two shared the brief scene in the movie that contains the terribly written line that Tallulah had such difficulty looping.

Maybe that direct link helps to explain the extra layer of sensitivity and nuance in Powers’ performance. She is especially effective handling the play’s most revelatory moments.

When Tallulah, in typically cynical form, says she once had an imaginary friend who didn’t like her very much, Powers makes it more than just another throw-away aside. A touch of vulnerability slips in.

A key point of the play has to do with Tallulah admitting that she could never have children. Later on,  Danny is in dire need of some mothering (this character’s crisis feels contrived, but does the job). At that moment, Powers not only shows just how ill-prepared, but also how genuinely eager, Tallullah is to provide it.

In the first act, Danny taunts Tallulah about her infamously campy 1956 performance in Miami of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The subject returns in Act 2, leading to a challenge from Danny that Tallulah can’t resist. What follows could easily turn sticky or awkward, but Powers makes the most of the scene to give her portrayal of this faded, but hardly extinguished, star another telling layer.

Hutchinson does winning work as the tense Danny. Matthew Montelongo is fine as Steve, the engineer who emits terse, wry lines at well-timed moments from the sound booth. Director Rob Ruggiero nimbly guides the production, which features a nicely atmospheric set by Adrian W. Jones.   

“Looped” doesn’t turn serious often, and never for long, but it’s still not exactly a “madcap comedy,” as the ads describe it. (It’s a little odd to see a very youthful, perky-looking picture of Powers in those ads, giving no clue what the play is about.)

There are some clunky and padded passages, maybe too much effort to psychoanalyze. And it’s hard to understand why Lombardo insists on tossing a gratuitous slap at Joan Crawford into the script (the “Mommie Dearest” nonsense has long been refuted). The playwright shows too much appreciation for show business legendry in “Looped” to stoop to that.

But, ultimately, this amusing and fundamentally affectionate look at the one and only Tallulah, brought so delectably to life by Powers, delivers a crackling night of theater.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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