Their verbosity and omnipresence on multiple media platforms notwithstanding, we don’t expect our celebrities to be particularly witty. Quick, think of a legitimately clever quip by Taylor Swift, Ryan Seacrest, or Lindsay Lohan. Impossible, isn’t it?
Tallulah Bankhead was the genuine article. She would have thrived in the age of Twitter.
Tallulah swept grandly through her defiantly messy life, leaving a trail of memorable one-liners, aperçus, and epigrams: “I’m as pure as the driven slush.’’ “Only good girls keep diaries; bad girls don’t have the time.’’ “I read Shakespeare and the Bible, and I can shoot dice. That’s what I call a liberal education.’’
Stefanie Powers got her own education in Tallulah Studies 101 when she costarred with Bankhead in the 1965 B-movie “Die! Die! My Darling!’’ Now, Powers is portraying Tallulah, and pretty delectably, too, in Matthew Lombardo’s “Looped,’’ at the Cutler Majestic Theatre through Sunday, directed by Rob Ruggiero.
As with Lombardo’s “High,’’ which played at the Cutler Majestic two years ago, starring Kathleen Turner and also directed by Ruggiero, “Looped’’ is alternately clever and facile, and the cleverness here is partly because the playwright borrows some of Tallulah’s real-life wisecracks. You can see a few of the jokes in “Looped” coming up Tremont Street, and Life Lessons and revelations arrive in too pat and schematic a fashion. When Lombardo shoehorns in a mawkish subplot involving a supporting character, a Bankhead line that he didn’t pluck for the play comes to mind: “There is less in this than meets the eye.’’
After all, we want to keep our own eyes trained on Tallulah. That’s where the fun is. From the moment Powers’s Bankhead strides onstage, costumed by William Ivey Long in a fur coat and sunglasses, she exudes a Norma Desmond-ish air of faded glamour. Powers channels Tallulah’s husky voice, languid-yet-watchful manner, and loose-cannon unpredictability.
Performers often claim to feel an intimate connection with their material, but there are virtually no degrees of separation between Powers and this story. “Looped,’’ based on real events, takes place in 1965 in a Los Angeles recording studio, where Bankhead repeatedly, and sometimes deliberately, muffs her attempts to re-record, or “loop,’’ a single line of dialogue. It’s for a film that is none other than “Die! Die! My Darling!,’’ in which Powers’s character, Patricia, is tormented by Mrs. Trefoile, a religious fanatic played by Bankhead, who holds Patricia responsible for her son’s death.
In fact, the arch, overwritten line that Bankhead can’t get through in “Looped’’ — “And so, Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me’’ — is spoken in the film by Mrs. Trefoile to Powers’s character. Having stepped into the role of Tallulah to replace an ailing Valerie Harper, who starred in “Looped” on Broadway, Powers is, in effect, re-creating a chapter from her own life.
Tallulah’s nonchalant attitude toward her chronic missteps ratchets up the tension between her and a tight-lipped film editor named Danny (Brian Hutchison, in a fine performance), who seems to bear some kind of grudge against the actress. Wearily overseeing their prickly interactions from an enclosed booth is Steve (Matthew Montelongo), a sound engineer who only wants to wrap things up so he can take his kids to a Dodgers game. (Hard to blame him; Steve says the great Sandy Koufax is on the mound that night.)
Tallulah demands bourbon but settles for Scotch, while also snorting cocaine and popping a few pills. She tries to shock and/or titillate Danny and Steve with her sexual candor, dishing in graphic terms about Gary Cooper and making a nasty (and predictable) crack about Joan Crawford. She talks on the phone with her sister, who is apparently a train wreck. She disappears for hours. And she keeps botching that single line of dialogue, at one point saying “rectum’’ instead of “rector.’’
“Is everything in life just a joke to you?,’’ Danny demands. Well, yes and no. Tallulah has her regrets. She laments her decision to turn down the chance to originate the role of Blanche DuBois on Broadway in “A Streetcar Named Desire,’’ only to camp it up when she later got her shot at the part, in a production at the decidedly less prestigious Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami.
The playwright proves too intent on spelling out why Tallulah made choices like that, why she sabotaged her career and lived with such excess. There’s no need for us to know, or guess at, why she did the things she did. All we need to know, and remember, is that she did them with such style.