On the face of it, Tallulah Bankhead and Stefanie Powers would seem to have not much more in common than gender (female), profession (actress) and a shared movie experience in the 1965 British thriller Die! Die! My Darling!. But watch Powers giving a bravura performance in Looped at the Parker Playhouse, and you may forget that you’re not really in the presence of the bawdy, misbehaving, notorious life force that was Bankhead.
Matthew Lombardo’s play, inspired by a real recording session in 1965, earned a best actress Tony Award nomination for its original star, Valerie Harper. They don’t give Tonys to touring shows, but if they did, Powers might well get a nomination of her own, particularly as her performance ripens and deepens over time. But already, in her second performance of the too-short Parker run — the second performance of the Looped national tour — Powers is doing an impressive job of channeling Bankhead.
Directed by Rob Ruggiero, Looped takes plays in a Los Angeles recording studio where Bankhead is re-recording one muffled line so that Die! Die! can be released. Set designer Adrian W. Jones has created a Mad Men-worthy space, one that’s ’60s sleek, and it’s there that Bankhead proceeds to drive an anxious film editor named Danny (Brian Hutchison) bonkers.
Bankhead turns what should have been a few minutes’ work into two hours of agony for Danny and a way-cool sound engineer named Steve (Matthew Montelongo). She’s late, drunk, confused and forgetful. With infinite variety, she botches every take. She snorts cocaine, pops pills and talks endlessly about her favorite subject, which happens to be sex. The f-bomb gets a real workout. Danny, who has other fish to fry, is polite, exasperated, confrontational. And still Tallulah screws up — on purpose, as it turns out.
In the early going, Looped uses provocative, wild, perfectly timed comedy to hook its audience, which it does quite handily. Yet as the crazy recording session goes on, Bankhead and Danny each burrow down to a place of vulnerability and revelation.
She remembers a moment in South Florida theater history, her disastrous turn as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, but finally she summons the performance that might have been for Danny. He peels away the carefully maintained fictions of his life, which has been far lonelier and more filled with loss than it should have been. They’re an odd couple, but against all odds, they connect.
Chic in a rich blue satin dress by William Ivey Long, Powers sports a wavy wig and artful makeup, both designed to make her look a bit more like Bankhead. But it’s her husky voice, movie-star diction and go-for-broke outrageousness that allow her to walk (or lurch) in Bankhead’s shoes. Her microphone level needs to be a bit louder — the men are much easier to understand — but her performance speaks volumes.