Lombardo, who splits his time between New York and Fort Lauderdale, has an affinity for plays centered around strong female characters. He had never had a special interest in Bankhead, an actress whose most notable stage work was in The Little Foxes and The Skin of Our Teeth, and who won a New York Film Critics Circle best actress award for the 1944 Alfred Hitchcock movie Lifeboat. But a chance remark at a party launched Lombardo on the journey to Looped.
A partygoer asked if he had ever heard the story about Bankhead showing up less than sober to re-record this tongue twister of a line from Die, Die, My Darling: “And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me.”
The original mistake wasn’t Bankhead’s. A sound guy hit some shrubbery with a microphone, obscuring most of her line. But because of Bankhead’s condition on the day revisited in the play, what should have been a few minutes’ work in a recording studio turned into hours.
“She had these ‘caddies,’ gay men who followed her around and helped her out, and one of them had recorded the session, unbeknownst to her,” Lombardo says. “The tape is 30 minutes long, and she cannot get the line. I listened to it over and over, and it went from a hysterical, laugh-out-loud experience to something else. The drinking, drugs and promiscuity all caught up with her, and she became a caricature of herself.”
Looped is a mixture of fact and creative license. To give Bankhead an opponent, Lombardo created the character of Danny Miller, a film editor who grows increasingly exasperated with the misbehaving star.
“I threw her in a room with someone who was her complete opposite,” the playwright says, “a very conservative, quiet, meek film editor. A sheep.”
Ruggiero says of Bankhead: “She was a woman who lived her life fully, without apology. She was vivid and unedited. The gay community felt a connection to her because of her sense of humor and camp ...We all care what people think of us, but she pretended she didn’t.”
He adds that having Powers as the larger-than-life woman in that room has been enlightening.
“Stefanie shares stories from the movie set. They pop in and out, like an oral history,” Ruggiero says.
Powers was a 23-year-old ingénue when she made Die, Die, My Darling. She’s 70 now, a woman who can look back on a multifaceted career in movies, TV and on stage; and on a life fully lived, including a romance with William Holden and her own successful battle with lung cancer.
Her assessment of Bankhead, her onetime costar?
“This self-destructive engine that moved her and her personal lifestyle choices were extremely damaging to her artistry. They engulfed her at the end. But the world she came from tolerated great eccentricity in successful people. It was encouraged and enjoyed. It can’t be reproduced in this homogeneous society we have now.”