It’s a bad day for Tallulah Bankhead. Her best years are behind her, she’s ill with the emphysema that will kill her in a couple of years, and she can’t even seem to get it together enough to lay down one line of dialogue in a Hollywood sound studio.
Matthew Lombardo’s Looped had a Broadway run starring Valerie Harper, and the playwright previously paid a similar tribute to Katharine Hepburn. Despite (or possibly because of) such credentials, the formulaic nature of the script prevents a compelling portrait of Bankhead from emerging. She becomes instead a famous figure borrowed to suit the playwright’s purpose, which is to create and connect the dramatic dots that a Broadway audience expects.
Bankhead had an impressive run of stage and screen appearances before her self-destructive tendencies halted her career, although little sense of such triumphs comes through. Lombardo takes but one key moment from her history: a failed performance as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, required both because it highlights the actress’ ability to sabotage her own work, and it resonates with the Big Reveal: Bankhead’s antagonist, a film editor named Danny Miller (Michael Rhodes), is a closeted homosexual.
It speaks well of today’s society that this revelation has grown unremarkable. But it’s a shame for playwrights, for whom it became a crutch—a trap, even (think Deathtrap). So it’s handy for Lombardo that Looped is set in 1965, when closeted gayness was still a big deal.
As Bankhead, Colleen Zenk is all piss and vinegar. She’s up against a well-documented iconic image, albeit one who is slipping into obscurity. She has the mannerisms and delivery down pat, yet she informs them with the humanity needed for vulnerability to emerge. We’re easily persuaded that we’re seeing Bankhead herself, and not just an impression of her.
Which only makes some of what the playwright imposes upon this character ring false. “We can say things to strangers we wouldn’t dream of confiding in our very best of friends,” she tells Danny in the second act. “Who was he?” Tallulah the seer and problem-solver is upon us now, and she’s not going to say her line until she plays Freud to poor Danny.
Rhodes has the challenging task of playing a character who is petulant, harried and (per the Big Reveal) deeply conflicted, and he makes the unfortunate choice of letting the petulance predominate. It rarely plays well. He comes off as a foot-stomping, mane-tossing debutante, leaking emotion all over the stage.
The play is set in a recording studio, which gives it a claustrophobic air from the start. With the addition of the immediate need to get that line recorded, tension is thick right from the start, and director Laura Margolis makes the most of it, sending her actors through a slowly developing dance that mirrors the script’s emotional reverses.
The claustrophobia is only slightly lessened by the presence of recording engineer Steve (Steven Austin Young), who sits in an upstage, upstairs projection booth. He’s the seen-it-all guy who’s not intimidated by celebrity—unlike Danny, who may be feeling a measure of awe at Bankhead’s presence, although it gets obscured by the too-easy petulance.
Along with the predictable moments of reversal and revelation, Lombardo’s script joins the current vogue of Hollywood tales (Moonlight and Magnolias, Orson’s Shadow), but, as far as the Big Reveal goes, he was beaten to the punch more effectively and elegantly by Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight, which premiered in 1966 and shows genuine wit and compassion.