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Smaller Than Life

Looped gets glib laughs and kitsch value from Tallulah Bankhead’s outsize life, and not much more.

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How much Tallulah Bankhead is too much? A shot glass’s worth is probably just about right, but Matthew Lombardo’s Looped fills two jumbo tankards and then some. Valerie Harper stars as the aged, fading Tallulah, a performer known more as an outsize personality than a big star; it’s 1965, and she’s been called into a sound studio to re-record a single line of dialogue for Die! Die! My Darling!, the movie that will be her last. A job that should take about twenty minutes stretches to fill the better part of a day, to the exasperation of film editor Danny (Brian Hutchison), who has problems of his own and quickly loses patience with Miss Bankhead’s self-absorbed, increasingly drunken and pill-addled shenanigans. Tallulah gets halfway through her one line and, intentionally or otherwise, forgets the rest, filling in the blanks with an ever-ready assortment of salacious quips. “I’ll be the first to say I’m bisexual: Buy me something, and I’ll be sexual,” she says with a bawdy, lipstick-shellacked leer. Reminiscing about a long-ago assignation with Joan Crawford, she announces, “She was a lousy lay—she kept getting out of bed to beat the children.”

Looped reframes Tallulah as the Wife of Bath in a mink coat and oversize sunglasses, and as bitchy campfests go, it’s exhausting. Harper works overtime to give Tallulah some three-dimensional life, but she can’t work the miracle of fleshing out a role that's written to include a lot of caricature: She becomes a prisoner of her penciled-in starlet eyebrows and wide Max Factor gash of a mouth. And the show’s pacing problems have been built right into the material. Looped starts out over-the-top and then stays there, largely because every gag, in a show packed with them, has the same wisecrack-wisecrack-kicker, zinger-zinger-wallop construction—before long, you stop hearing the actual words inside. In real life, Bankhead’s story, not a particularly happy one, probably did become its own punch line. That doesn’t mean we should be the ones having the last laugh.


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