"And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector..." says Tallulah Bankhead (Elizabeth Bouvier) before repeatedly fumbling the rest of the line in Looped, recently presented at the Valiant Theatre and Lounge. Matthew Lombardo's play is based on an actual "looping" session for the 1965 film Die! Die! My Darling!, the final film for the incendiary actress, one of the top stage and screen performers of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Arriving late to the studio dressed in satin and fur, she is drunk and distracted, making recording all but impossible, much to the frustration of film editor Danny Miller (Gregory M. Nacozy). Not having made a movie in 20 years, she is confused by his direction to wait for three beeps before speaking.
Much of the catty, quick-witted dialogue was created by Lombardo, who was a script writer for the TV soap opera Another World before he turned to playwriting. Other dialogue was lifted from a recording of the conversation between Bankhead and Miller. All of it, whether clever or mean-spirited, keeps the audience laughing.
A dark comedy, Looped depicts an actress well past her prime, addicted to cigarettes, alcohol and pills, who can't be bothered by the tedious process of dubbing a tape. Act 1 is uproariously funny as Bankhead taunts Miller with savage one-liners, defying his attempts to get down to business. In Act 2, their interactions become more intimate as the two find they have much in common.
Bouvier starred in the long-running solo show FourPlay and was named 2010 Entertainer of the Year in Ambush Magazine's Gay Appreciation Awards. She revels in portraying Bankhead's flamboyant personality, delivering acerbic humor in her signature husky voice.
Bankhead insists on drinking during the recording session because, after all, she was drunk throughout the film. The narrative delves into her unhappy childhood and chronic need for attention, acted out in outrageous sexual relationships and gutter talk. When Miller implores "Trust me," she responds, "The last time a man said that to me, I was standing on a diving board wearing nothing but a string of pearls ... to prove I was an ash blonde."
The audience gets a sense of Bankhead's true talent when she reprises a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire, playing Blanche DuBois, a role supposedly written for her by Tennessee Williams.
Bankhead was known for empathy, and in Looped, she shifts tactics mid-stream, prying into Miller's personal life to avoid her own.
"You're a terribly unhappy young man," she says. "The one thing I do know is pain when I see it."
That's when the show gets interesting.
Looped was directed by Gary Vandeventer, whose credits include conducting and acting in more than 30 musicals and producing the annual Mardi Gras bal masque for the Lords of Leather Carnival krewe.