Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead in Looped.
BOTTOM LINE: If you're going to shell out for a Broadway ticket, you might want to look farther than Looped.
Lately Broadway is like a bad relationship: I want to be there when I’m not and when I’m there I just want to leave. I want to be seated in these gorgeous theaters that are heavy with the vibes of New York Theater Past, eras populated by such outlandish characters as, say, the legendary Tallulah Bankhead. But inevitably I find myself staring at the ornate ceilings and plush, red curtains wondering what it was that made Broadway a destination in the first place. What inspired the likes of Al Hirschfeld to record the lives and performances of such artists? Watching Looped, itself a nod to theater past, I feel disconnected from that exciting energy.
To be sure, Broadway houses are large for the waning 2010 crowd of theater-goers. But why is it a given that the larger the crowd to please the more bland and general the brand of pleasure has to be? If ‘bland pleasure’ isn’t a proper oxymoron I don't know what is. Certainly Tallulah Bankhead, protagonist of Broadway’s Looped, wasn’t into anything bland. Yet I spent much of the two acts of this tribute to her wondering if this was the sort of stuff that got ol’ Al going? I hate to say it, but I don’t think so. What is the point of ‘in general’ theater? When there are thousands of fantastically talented, passionate actors, playwrights and directors taking wild risks and working their butts off for nil in this city, what is the advantage to seeing accomplished artists get paid big bucks to plod like zombies through the dredges of uninspired texts?
There is no question in my mind that the three actors who carry off this blasé affair are wonderfully talented. Leading lady Valerie Harper won me over years ago in The Tale of the Allergists Wife on Broadway and has been creating her version of Tallulah Bankead for several years now. Leading man Brian Hutchinson left my jaw agape in Will Ino’s Oh The Humanity at the Flea Theater two years back. But both give disappointingly one-note performances in this production of Matthew Lombard’s new play. Michael Mulheren, with the least to do, actually steals the show. The audience can relate more to his disinterest in the goings on downstairs in the studio than we do to the implausible, catty banter between the other two.
The script is a long series of sex jokes in which Mr. Hutchinson’s character, Danny, tosses the ball up…and Ms. Harper’s drugged up Tallulah knocks it into the outfield. After the first ten minutes of this, we get it, but they continue nonetheless. Woven between these one-liners is a potentially moving plot bogged down by hackneyed ideas and over-baked humor. The premise: Tallulah Bankhead, true to the history books, is an aging film star with a drug problem and a death sentence. Tallulah’s purpose this evening is to tear down the young, sexually and emotionally repressed film editor Danny and build him back up again. All this because she is a keen enough actress to see right through him to his pain and suffering and wants him to devour life as she does. This is a good vehicle for recanting famous Bankhead quotes and conveying a bit of biographical information. This may be a novel, even provocative plot to some but if you’re seeing theater with any consistency you’ll likely be bored by this grueling script. How many one-liners does one need in a single evening? While Harper and Hutchinson give Tallulah and Danny their best shots, there’s about enough plausibility and dramatic tension between these two to keep the coffee I snuck in luke warm for an extra 30 seconds.
The play’s most dramatic moments come first when Danny breaks down sobbing, admitting he loves a man and has lost his daughter and shortly thereafter when Harper gives a stunning Blanche Dubois speech for Danny who, in a heavy handed, last minute twist of character, reveals that he has been a life long fan of the actress’ work (despite the fact that he’s been only frustrated with and disgusted by her thus far in the play). Both Harper and Hutchinson handle their respective dramatic crescendos with grace and aplomb. But this does not cancel out the rest of the dreary evening. The characters are not particularly well written so that doesn’t help…but one would think director Rob Ruggiero would have been hip to the obvious pitfalls of this script and avoided them like land mines. Alas, neither playwright nor director seemed interested in anything more than highlighting the endless jokes. Looped is appropriately billed as “a new comedy” as that is what it aspires to be and sadly falls short even there. Loads of shallow jokes looped together does not a loopy comedy make. This may be the best way to teach us about the life and times of the outlandish Tallulah Bankhead but then just leave it there and stand by that. Layering on maudlin speeches and character reveals late in the plot feels like a last ditch effort at sincerity but does not save the play.
(Looped plays at the Lyceum Theater, 149 West 45th Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm and 8pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25-$111.50 and are available at telecharge.com. Get orchestra seats for $66.50 with discount code LPGNA210 at broadwayoffers.com. For more show info visit loopedonbroadway.com.)