Loopedby Matthew Lombardo. Directed by Laura Margolis.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Stop with the sugar act—you’ll give me diabetes."
Michael Rhodes and Colleen Zenk; photo: Rob Shannon
Final work on the horror flick "Die! Die, My Darling!" starring Stephanie Powers and Tallulah Bankhead was completed, the story goes, when Bankhead dubbed, or looped, one line that had been messed up by the movement of the sound boom. It was a convoluted line and not one that made much of an impression when all was said and done. Nevertheless author Matthew Lombardo has made a play out of this post-production experience and that play now graces the stage at Stageworks Hudson, in Hudson, New York. Bankhead, looped in other ways, appears hours late at her Hollywood studio’s sound department for her recording session in this play and proceeds to literally bring down the joint with laughter, tears, booze, drugs and sexual chatter, memories and madness.
What is essentially "mad" about the experience here are the facts. The film was a UK, and not a Hollywood, product, made in England by Hammer Films at the Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, produced by Anthony Hinds and edited by John Dunsford (represented here by the very Hollywood-styled Danny Miller, played by Michael Rhodes). It was released in the USA by Columbia Pictures which also produced it. The play is set in a recording studio in Los Angeles which Bankhead has not been able to find while driving her Bentley around town. This actually mirrors an experience she suffered in London in the 1920s when she paid a cabbie to lead her to her destination while she followed along in her British Bentley. A lot of this sort of thing has gone into this play and the resultant piece works well in spite of these lifts from reality.
What works less well here is the use of an actress who cannot bring to life the essence of Bankhead. Under the fine guidance of director Laura Margolis the American television actress Colleen Zenk who appeared for 32 years on "As the World Turns" turns in a rather youthful impression of the southern actress who is, presumably, 65 years old in this play. Many of her lines are actual quotes, statements uttered by the actress herself over a forty or so year period. Some lines are much more obviously the playwright's. What emerges in this melange of lines is more caricature than character, however, and though there are thoroughly realistic moments here, including the call from Bankhead’s sister and her own breakdown as memory of a very difficult stage appearance overwhelms her, it is hard to overcome the need for full and proper imitation. This is something Zenk cannot do. She is too much a lightweight in the vocal department and the basso boom of Tallu’s famous voice is just completely out of her reach. The physical limitations of a tiny woman who has reached a certain age are also beyond her; her co-workers need to be taller than the play’s heroine so that she can dominate them with ease from her physical toy-world.
What Zenk does do is play a character with the same name as the real-life star, a character who comes across as much like Bankhead as Bette Davis did in the 1950 film "All About Eve." The costume she wears is one that looks like a cross between a Bankhead original and Davis copy, a dress that is worn for cocktails and not for looping a line. This follows the show’s original costume concept work by Valerie Harper. It is, quite simply, the wrong costume and its use is probably indicated in the script somewhere, a physical pacifier in a way, as it gets you thinking about a famous photo of the actress (you choose) who played Bankhead imitating Davis playing Bankhead again in a Broadway revue.
Michael Rhodes as the fictitious American film editor Danny Miller is an excellent actor who makes us sympathize with a man who does little other than lie about himself and his interest in the actress Tallulah Bankhead. This is a difficult role and like other male roles in recent plays about powerful, real women it is the focal part. While the play may claim that "Bankhead" is the topic in truth it is the story of a man coming to grips with the realities of his own embittered life. The comedy and grandeur of the famous woman may be what you come for, but you leave with something quite different courtesy of the playwright and the actor.
As the technician Steve, Steven Austin Young presents a full-blooded character who is both professionally and personally involved with his fellow prisoners of the studio. Young uses a charming persona to create a memorable third wheel in the adventure of looping a line.
Randall Parsons realistic set is one of the most perfect designs I have seen at Stageworks Hudson and its solidity adds immeasurably to the success of this play. George S. Veale VI’s costumes define the characters accordingly. Frank DenDanto III’s lighting captures the mood changes of the play well, making this a comedy in the class of the Maria Callas play "Master Class" by Terence McNally. Ben Heyman’s sound design also helps to define difficult moments in the play.
It is Laura Margolis who holds the reigns here and she does it by giving her three horses their heads but keeping them moving forward in her desired direction. The play has not one false moment and the comedy works as well as it ever could. You have to suspend your disbelief and accept the lightweight actress as a heavyweight actress and give reality a very wide pass to get into Margolis’ production but once you do you have a good evening of theater in front of you.
"Looped" may not win awards for the best play of the year but it surely is a good way to spend a summer evening. Sometimes that is all you should expect. Sometimes the reward is a conversation that keeps the show alive for a good long while after you’ve left the theater. That is what happens here.
Tallulah Bankhead, ca. 1950
Colleen Zenk as Tallulah, ca. 1965; photo: photo: Rob Shannon
Looped plays at Stageworks Hudson, located at 41 Cross Street in Hudson, NY through July 28. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-822-9667 or go on line at www.stageworkshudson.org.