Saturday, March 13, 2010


The happiest place to be on Broadway these less-than-cheerful days is the Lyceum theater. Laughter litera;lly roars through the audience, almost, but not quite, drowning out the growls and rants and slurs of the crazily luminous Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in 'Looped.' This tour-de-force of wit, smut, and brilliant characterization by a television favorite who bursts out of her box, takes place in a sound studio where the notoriously unreliable Bankhead is to re-record one unintelligible line for a film. Unsurprisingly, she is late, contemptuous, alcoholic, irreverent, and, as drawn in this seemingly incidental play, amazingly touching, and, although at the end of her career rope, irresistible.
The action, such as it is, takes place in real time, as the sound engineer, Steve, played by Michael Mulheren, waits in a booth above the set for the notorious diva to arrive and record the line, to be directed by Danny, Brian Hutchinson. Although the two men in the cast appear to be merely pawns for the star to play off, as one suspects actual men were in the star's life, at least one of them has his own story, which she will gainfully and painfully pull out of him.("Everyone has a story," Bankhead insists, and she is right.)
But the evening is really about Tallulah, and, more gloriously, Valerie Harper herself, who infuses every line with an actress-y bravado that makes you wish Bankhead was floating about the premises able to give it her imprimatur. What is most amazing about the fiercely comedic performance is the picture that emerges of a brilliant personality who threw her life away, most especially her chance to prove herself a genuine actress in 'Streetcar Named Desire,' which Tennessee Williams apparently wrote for her, but she turned down. The moment when she speaks a few lines she might have spoken as Blanche DuBois shows a sensitivity and fragility that no one suspected, except perhaps Williams himself. By this time, the spell that Harper has cast over the audience is so complete that yan ou could almost feel them grieving over Bankhead's lost opportunity, the great actress she might have become, instead of the caricature. The wonder of the evening is that Harper's interpretation never seems to descend into caricature, but is instead a wildly comedic re-interpretation of a legendary actress, that, leaving the theater, you feel, in between the happy ache of belly-laughs, you actually spent the evening with.