LOOPED at New Phoenix Theatre presents Hollywood “bad girl” Tallulah Bankhead with nuance and penetrating insight

THE BASICS:  LOOPED, a play by Matthew Lombardo, presented by New Phoenix Theatre, directed by Richard Lambert, starring Julie Kittsley as Tallulah Bankhead, with James Cichocki, and Elliott Fox runs through November 20, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.  Thursdays are pay-what-you-can.  Location: 95 Johnson Park ( Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and masks are required.  Bar serves soda, wine, and beer.  Runtime:Under two hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  In 1965 (true story) Hollywood “bad girl” Tallulah Bankhead, known for her outrageous behavior and raunchy wit, was scheduled to visit a recording studio for the sole purpose of re-recording one line of dialog from her final film “Die, Die, My Darling.”  When re-recording, or dubbing a line or two, short lengths of film are displayed on a continuous loop so that the voice actor can synch the lips to the original dialog.  It’s called “looping.”  Of course, “looped” is also slang for being drunk.  As it turns out, what could have been done in eight minutes in the studio that day reportedly took eight hours.  Playwright Matthew Lombardo, with clear eyed knowledge of alcoholics, imagines what happened in that studio.

L-R James Cichocki as film editor and Julie Kittsley as Tallulah Bankhead

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Local actress Julie Kittsley is stunning as Tallulah Bankhead, who, in the words of playwright Tennessee Williams , had a voice “that somehow resulted from the fantastic crossbreeding of a moth and a tiger.”  I’m reminded of a Tom Wolfe quote (that I cannot reference) that such a voice, like oiled ball bearings, only comes from years of drinking Scotch whiskey and smoking Camels.  But, for Bankhead, it wouldn’t have been Scotch.  As she tells us: “I gave my dog a sip of Scotch once.  He had to lick his asshole to get the taste out of his mouth.”

Ah, the Bankhead wit.  “They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum.”  “Cocaine isn’t habit forming. I should know, I’ve been using it for years”  “It’s the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time.”

If the rhythm of those one-liners sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the original “bad girl” of Hollywood, Mae West (1893 – 1980).  Bankhead (1918–1968) was roughly of that era, coming a little earlier than Joan Crawford (1924 – 1972) and Bette Davis (1929–1989).

Was it all a show?  No.  The booze and drugs did have an effect resulting in a loss of plum roles and ultimately an early (age 66) death. While Joan Crawford and Bette Davis might have been at odds, imagine how Tallulah felt when the role of “Margo Channing” in the movie “All About Eve” originally written just for Bankhead, was given to Bette Davis.  And Davis played three more roles in films that had been originated by Bankhead in live theater, the movies “Dark Victory,” “Jezebel,” and “The Little Foxes.”

Julie Kittsley as Tallulah Bankhead

So, we are looking at a woman who has suffered, yes, partly or mostly by her own doing.  And, yes, it’s all there on the stage of the New Phoenix Theatre: the drinking, snorting cocaine, outrageous comments, references to casual sex with both men and women.  And, for the first half of the evening, that’s what we get.  She’s obnoxious, gives everybody a hard time, is demanding, and drives the film editor “Danny Miller” (Cichocki) crazy.  Amusing, but it’s not what makes this play a great play.

For an insight, let’s go back to playwright Tennessee Williams who created the character of Blanche DuBois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (a scene from which Kittsley, as Bankhead, delivers on stage).  The character Blanche is a former southern belle, a social outcast because of her promiscuity, her husband has committed suicide, she’s an alcoholic, and in the play Stanley Kowalski sees right through her.  He recognizes her vulnerability, strips away the veneer, and it’s not pretty to watch.  He is not a kind man.

Tennessee Williams recalled meeting actress Tallulah Bankhead when he was young: “I went backstage after the play that night and she received me in her dressing room with that graciousness that has nothing to do with her Southern origin and genteel breeding but with her instinctive kindness to a person in whom she senses a vulnerability that is kin to her own.”

And that’s what Tallulah Bankhead reveals in the second half of the play LOOPED.  She senses a vulnerability in Danny that is kin to her own.  And she believes that she can help him.  So, as the character Stanley Kowalski does in STREETCAR, she starts stripping away Danny’s veneer.  At first it seems like the mean, taunting, booze-soaked, crazy-making jibes that we’ve seen and heard in Act I.  She seems to be doing to Danny what Stanley did to Blanche.  But then, things happen.

I’ll leave it at that.  A famous Bankhead quip was ““There’s less here than meets the eye.”  In this play, there’s more.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Lead image: James Cichocki as film editor, Julie Kittsley as Tallulah Bankhead, Elliott Fox as sound engineer

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