By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
It’s 1965. Herman Miller has designed every chair in America, Ma Bell rotary dial phones come in colors to accent each room of your home, and the three-martini work meeting is standard. We’re at the end of an era: pillbox hats and Brylcreem hair styles are soon to be replaced by mop-topped British invaders and the sound of Bell helicopters in Vietnam on the living-room television screen.
We’re in Los Angeles, where the major studios are struggling with prima donna actors, bankruptcy, and the rising ticket sales from B movies produced by smaller companies. There’s been a gaffe in a film recording, and Tallulah Bankhead has been called back into the studio to record an overdub of one line so editing on her latest movie, Die! Die! My Darling!, can be completed.
Ten years ago the recording of this session was unearthed, and playwright Matthew Lombardo took the premise and made a play called Looped, which opened Thursday night at Triangle Productions, with Margie Boulé delivering a glamorous and overflowing performance as the powerhouse diva Tallulah. Bankhead was one of the first American show-biz celebrities to really bank on celebrity. She never bothered to remember first names, so she took up the habit of calling everyone “Dahling.” She was the youngest member of the fabled Algonquin Roundtable, moving strategically to the hotel to make a closer “in” with the literati and makers of the day: she sharpened and refined her wit under Dorothy Parker.
Onstage in Triangle’s Looped, the sound engineer, Steve (James Sharinghousen) and the producer, Danny Miller (David Sargent) await the perpetually late Tallulah. Boulé enters with a bam in a satin purple cocktail dress highlighted by a crystal brooch. As she descends the stairs in her furs and sunglasses, we almost see a famous Bankhead drunk-tumble. It’s hard to act a drunk: it means being very sober, on-point, and having lots of iced tea in a decanter. Boulé gives us Tallulah: the glamour, the calculated and fractured physical movements of an alcoholic, the long drawn face of a nicotine addict, the overconfidence of someone who has spent her life alone, the sexiness of a woman who knows what she wants, and the rapier wit for which Tallulah was famous. In an almost perfect sense, Boulé was meant for this role: for years she provided the Walter Winchellese to The Oregonian. She was beloved for her columns that covered the serious, eccentric, and everyday life of Portland. More than any journalist in town, she had a constant repartee with her readers. On the side, she more than moonlighted with acting: she’s been in more than 100 productions and that deep experience shows.
While women in pants, wearing makeup, having a profession, and keeping an apartment of their own was seen as scandalous in the 1920s, Bankhead kicked it up a notch or 20. “I’m a lesbian. What do you do?” she introduced herself. Much like celebrities of our day, she never had an addiction problem, because she could afford it. She reportedly smoked more than 150 Craven A cork-tipped cigarettes a day, could polish off a bottle of bourbon in half an hour, unless the weather was sweltering and she held it to her chest for a few seconds. Then there was that little penchant for codeine and cocaine: “My father warned me about men and booze, but he never mentioned a word about women and cocaine.”
The beautiful, morose, aristocratic Southerner made her name on the stage in England, and descended upon Hollywood to sleep with Gary Cooper. She was the rare woman actress who wasn’t afraid of being directed by Alfred Hitchcock ( in an adaptation of Steinbeck’s Lifeboat), and was a close friend of Tennessee Williams.
But back to that recording studio in 1965. For all that Bankhead had done – become an international star of the stage and screen, gossip-column headliner, libertine, and outspoken liberal Democrat
Dixiecrat – it took her 8 hours to record that single line of dialogue. Tallulah had a deep voice, like Lauren Bacall, with an affected Southern accent. And like Judy Garland, she has her place in the pantheon of gay heroes, women and men. Her acerbic wit, noted and adapted by other semi-outed actors such as Paul Lynde, has become part of a legacy. There have been six plays devoted to the icon of Tallulah Bankhead, and even one comedic drag duo, the Dueling Bankheads. In Looped, Lombardo took the opportunity of an eight-hour overdub odyssey to create a chance for the real Tallulah to come forward, with some respite from a fan who takes a moment in time to speak to his hero.
Bankhead did the sort of things that several fading stars of the Hollywood system did: starred in live-broadcast television plays, had a failed variety show, did cameos on pop-culture television, and made horror films. Die! Die! My Darling! was from the British Hammer Films, a company that thrived on excessive amounts of psychological and physical gore, to the point of being campy to avoid censorship. It’s in this moment that we catch a glimpse into Triangle’s Looped: where other productions have concentrated on the Sunset Boulevard quality of the play, we get to see dialogue, acting, circumstance that has dimension and experience, and does what the stage does best: create the human experience.
Lombardo’s play weaves actual Bankhead sarcastic quotes into the dialogue, and Boulé delivers the script with a natural ease. Sargent plays the straight man well: his over-ironed posture, as if he left the hanger in his grey suit when he put it on, takes her punches with grace. He’s also a man of the era, showing little emotion until he’s pushed to the edge. Triangle’s Looped deftly overlaps stock theater characters from history such as Falstaff (Bankhead) and Pierrot the Fool (Miller) by overlapping them with their mid-century real life counterparts.
With a tour-de-force like Tallulah, supporting actors have to be the rice or mashed potatoes to the main course. Their acting is all the more important as scaffolding to hold the invisible joints of the play together, and Donald Horn’s skill as a director can be seen in this intricate performance. As Tallulah was once quoted: “Nobody can be exactly like me. Sometimes even I have trouble doing it.”
The first act will have you laughing at Bankhead’s outrageous and true proclivities and quips: “I’ll be the first to say I’m bisexual: Buy me something, I’ll be sexual.” I was worried that 90 minutes of listening to a deep Southern gravelly-voiced “dahling” might be hard to handle. But, the ease with which Boulé and Sargent work together, it wasn’t a problem in the slightest: the rest of the audience and I came to love our antihero in no time. In Act II, the sarcasm and bitterness give way to their origin, the painful truth. One of which many of us can identify: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina.” The play’s highlight comes when Tallulah is reminiscing over her failed performance as Blanche DuBois in her friend Tenny’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Boulé moves flawlessly from Bankhead to DuBois, from DuBois to Bankhead, and back again.
This is Triangle Productions’ 26th season, with a lineup the company has dubbed “The Year for Women.” It’s start off with a bang. We look forward to the rest of the season (coming up next is The Book of Merman, with Amy Jo Halliday as the brassy Miss Ethel), and seeing Boulé on the stage more.
Looped continues at Triangle through September 26. Ticket and schedule details are here.