A new school of psychology is inaugurated in Matthew Lombardo's play "Looped," which had its world premiere Tuesday at the Pasadena Playhouse. It's called Tallulah Therapy, and it involves being stuck in a room with an aging Southern booze-and-pill-addicted actress who says the most outlandishly naughty things, reveals her sorriest secrets and demands that you confront whatever it is you've been running away from your whole life. And make it snappy, dahling -- this old diva needs a stiff drink.
Entertainment value is guaranteed when the subject is the one and only Tallulah Bankhead, a woman who combined the morally inverting wit of Oscar Wilde, the drawling decadence of Tennessee Williams and the tragic shadow of Blanche DuBois, a character she claimed Williams wrote just for her. And though Lombardo's drama could in no way be described as subtly crafted, the production (directed by Rob Ruggiero) has another secret weapon in Valerie Harper, who plays Bankhead with an all-out camp attack that softens over time into something more recognizably human.
The setup, biographically derived, is simple but effective: It's 1965 and Bankhead has been asked to re-record a few words of dialogue for "Die! Die! My Darling!" -- a movie that should have been finished ages ago. Uptight Danny Miller (Chad Allen) is the unlucky studio employee charged with getting this nonsensical line out of her inebriated lips.
Bankhead isn't at her best. She has succumbed to her vices, her health is in decline, she's more or less sabotaged her career with mercenary choices, and the sight of anyone living a dreary, closeted existence drives her to distraction. Danny's task, in other words, is going to be as tough as Sisyphus' -- only more emotionally wrenching as he's forced to finally deal with what he's been guiltily repressing.
No one should expect profound revelations from Lombardo's mix of microwaveable epiphanies and recycled zingers ("Of course I have a drinking problem. Whenever I'm not drinking? Oh honey, it's a problem"). This is a flamboyant vehicle for saucy laughs and easy sentiment -- a bawdier version of "Tea at Five," the solo show about Katharine Hepburn that Lombardo contrived with the same cliched theatrical kick.
The husky-voiced daughter of Alabama political gentry, a robust stage actress who sold out for a Hollywood paycheck, an outsize star with a raucous gay cult following -- Bankhead adored nothing more than rehashing her story, taking particular delight in the racier chapters featuring her leading men. Yet who -- or more confoundingly, what -- was she?
"I suppose you could say Tallulah was a tramp, in the elegant sense," Williams recollected in his juicy "Memoirs." "I remember she never wanted to interrupt a conversation for bodily functions, and if she was carrying on an animated conversation with me and had to pay a call of nature, she would ask me to accompany her into the bathroom and sit on the edge of the tub while she completed her story and the call of nature."
This tossed-off anecdote is more vivid than anything in Lombardo's play. "Looped" doesn't seek out the Bankhead we don't yet know, the naked rebel behind the glamorous, tight-jawed outrageousness. A drag act of irreverence, after all, can't be sustained forever. Bankhead was the real nonconformist deal.
Like most contemporary biographical hounds, Lombardo is reluctant to let a single tear slip by him. We learn about Bankhead's mother dying shortly after giving birth to her and the lifelong resentment of her congressman father, the sexual assault that occurred when she was a teenager, the case of the clap that left her sterile before she was 30 and the string of loveless affairs concealing a tender, coked-up heart.
But the dominant note is giddy burlesque, and Harper, who created in Rhoda one of the most treasured television sitcom characters of all time, has a field day relighting the soul of this brassy, bourbon-soaked broad. The Dixie accent is in place, the wig has just the right wave, and the way the mink is thrown around her shoulders lets us know she's ready for insouciant battle. If Harper seems to be circling the sound studio (adequately rendered by scenic designer Adrian W. Jones) a bit unsteadily, it's presumably to point out that Bankhead could have been arrested for DUI both in and out of her Bentley.
The broadness of the first half, as our protagonist keeps bungling her cues and flubbing her lines, gives way to a fraught relationship drama. The writing is still too obviously pitched, but it's a reminder of what Harper hasn't been given enough opportunity to showcase since her days on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda" -- a talent for making genuine connections with other actors.
Allen has to contend with a role that has too many prefabricated dimensions, but he lends the strait-laced Danny a bottled-up anger that subverts the sentimentality of the play's secret-spilling path. And as he shouts up orders to the sound engineer (Michael Karl Orenstein), we see that there are more sides to the man than the plot cares to consider.
"Looped" may be content to replay the Bankhead tapes we've heard a million times already, but Harper proves the heretical wit hasn't lost its power to startle.
Where: Pasadena Playhouse,
39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: : 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays,
2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Call for exceptions
Ends: Aug. 3
Price: $32 to $65
Contact: : (626) 356-PLAY
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes