In 1937 when Tallulah Bankhead opened on Broadway in "Antony and Cleopatra," she was the target of a classic critical riposte: the actress, wrote critic John Mason Brown, "barged down the Nile... and sank."
Happily the same can't be said for Stephanie Powers, who barges into a Hollywood sound stage circa 1965 and commands the stage in "Looped" with her heartfelt evocation of Bankhead -- an actress from Broadway's Golden Age whose reputation, incredibly enough, lives on, mostly because her larger-than-life personality.
Bankhead's reputation made her notorious -- a headline-stealing celebrity whose off-stage exploits undermined her reputation of being a terrific actress. At her best, as Regina Giddens in "The Little Foxes" and the maid Sabina in "The Skin of Our Teeth," she was (in the words of theater historian Ethan Mordden) "passionately committed to the roles she undertook, and she got reviews as good as any other actress of her day. The difference between Tallulah Bankhead and, say, Helen Hayes is not that Bankhead was a joke and Hayes wasn't. It is that Bankhead created a personality that was even bigger offstage than on."
In "Looped," adroitly written by Matthew Lombardo, Powers plays Bankhead at the end of her career. She has just finished shooting (in England) a Grade-B horror film in the "Baby Jane"-mold: "Die! Die! My Darling!"), and is back in a Hollywood studio to "loop" (re-record dialogue in synch with the screen image) a line that was unintelligible when filmed.
It is a process that should have a quick turnaround, but for the sobriety-challenged Bankhead, it turns into an ordeal. As each take is worse than what came before, Bankhead drinks Scotch (which she hates), snorts cocaine and spars with the film’s exasperated film editor, who (in the absence of a director that has, conveniently, gone missing) must supervise the actress in the process.
It turns out to be a daunting task: the mercurial Bankhead, though down, is not out, and she lives up to her difficult reputation. Flubbing the line with careless abandon, she’s blissfully unaware of what a pain in the ass she is; instead, she uses the afternoon to live up to her legend as a mercurial diva, throwing off one-liners with finesse. She is also something of a caricature, happily playing into her reputation of a camp icon. Facing the final phase of her career (and life), she’s a magnificent wreck.
Powers offers a spot-on snapshot of Bankhead. Her auburn hair falls loosely over her face; her Cheshire cat smile is ever-present, despite her beauty having faded into a kabuki-like mask; and her unmistakable throaty alto remains intact, even more challenged from a life of cigarettes and alcohol. But she also captures Bankhead’s faded elegance in an expert physical performance. Her Bankhead moves about the stage with a feline grace that rivets your attention, even as she wanders in the shadows in a drunken reverie.
This turn comes late in the first act, when she escapes from reality, recalling her performance as Blanche Dubois in a Florida revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire," where she was laughed at by fans that had come to see Tallulah the Legend, not Bankhead the actress.
In this sequence, Powers suggests the complexity of this woman -- one who was serious in her craft, but ever mindful of her celebrity. When she sees that the audience isn’t taking her seriously, she becomes something of a minstrel, playing Williams’ tragic heroine (which was written for her) for laughs. Little wonder that the playwright compared her to a drag queen. Some often mention this performance as the turning point in her career: the moment when she lost her credibility as an actress and became a camp figure.
Yet the beauty of what Powers does is move beyond camp. Sure, her Tallulah is hilarious, largely due to Lombardo repurposing many of her famous witticisms; but in his re-imaging, she’s a bit like an Auntie Mame-figure, taking the troubled film editor under her wing and giving him a different way of looking at the world.
Lombardo’s second act does get dogged down in a the kind-of uplift that turns Tallulah into an inspiring figure out of a Lifetime movie, but Powers makes it work; giving the final scenes a bittersweet quality. Her Tallulah is a life-force that only her frail body will extinguish.
Lombardo provides Powers with some very funny material to work with, and her increasingly hostile relationship with Danny Miller (a believable Brian Hutchison) gives the relatively brief play its necessary through-line.
Hutchison plays a tortured, closeted man right of the "Mad Men"-era and brings pathos to his portrayal. The character is not unlike the role Dennis Quaid played in "Far From Heaven": a gay man born too soon. There’s also able support from (Matthew Montelongo) as the dryly witty sound man whose deadpan comments ratchet up the laugh quotient.
But the evening belongs to Powers, who suggests a legend with such naturalism that the artifice all but falls away. It’s a bit of a contradiction, really, because Bankhead is best-known for her mannered persona. She mirrors other great divas (Norma Desmond comes immediately to mind), but what makes the performance so memorably real is how centered Powers is.
Perhaps this comes from her experiences working with Bankhead on "Die! Die! My Darling!" where she was the film’s ingenue. Is she channelling her memories of that experience? Whatever the reason, her Tallulah knows she’s become a joke and a has-been. She has burned many bridges, but has no regrets. And while her greatness as an actress may be ephemeral (really only her performance in Hitchcock’s "Lifeboat" shows what she’s capable of), Powers embodies just why she’s remains legend nearly a half-century after her death.
"Looped" continues through May 5 at the Cutler Majestic Theater at Emerson College, 219 Tremont Street, Boston. For more information visit this website.