- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

“Codeine … bourbon.” That may rank right up there with “Rosebud” as among the most delicious last words.

That final thought — as well as such memorable witticisms as, “I’m pure as the driven slush” and, “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner” — belong to the original high-maintenance diva, actress Tallulah Bankhead, whose quips, quaffs and scandals are captured in the engaging new play “Looped,” starring Valerie Harper as the bawdy Southern belle.

At first blush, you may not think “Valerie Harper and Tallulah Bankhead — separated at birth?” Yet Miss Harper deftly channels the 1930s and ‘40s film-and-stage legend and notorious bon vivant — the whiskey-soaked voice with the haughty English undertones, the spill of ash-blond hair, the aura of glamour and rebelliousness.

Miss Harper, clad in a slinky midnight-blue satin frock by William Ivey Long, stalks the stage like a Tennessee Williams heroine, and as an unrepentant drunk and high liver, she couldnt be more entertaining.

For “Looped,” she plays Miss Bankhead in the “Sunset Boulevard” time of her life — 62 years old, riddled with emphysema, washed up as a stage and screen goddess but still out there swinging and quick with the witticisms. In a bland recording studio in 1965, the faded star goes at it hammer and tongs with an unctuous film editor, Danny (Jay Goede), who needs her to rerecord one line in what would turn out to be her last film, “Die, Die My Darling.”

Matthew Lombardo’s play is based on an actual audiotape of Miss Bankhead’s eight-hour ordeal to loop a single line, but he has broadened the scenario to include insights into Miss Bankhead’s nslaked thirst for alcohol and attention, and also a rather contrived (but splendidly acted by Mr. Goede) subplot involving Danny’s unhappiness at being a closeted homosexual in ‘60s Hollywood.

The real raison d’etre for “Looped” is to revel in Miss Bankhead’s outrageousness, which is particularly voluptuous when viewed from today’s prim climate of 12-step programs and interventions. This Bankhead is a drunk and a pill popper — pure and simple. She arrives at the studio in August in a fur coat and dark glasses, lurching grandly about after a morning of cocktails and toting a pocketbook full of pills and punch lines.

“Looped” contains many of Miss Bankhead’s most famous one-liners and lore about the actress — her bisexuality, her being hopeless at directions, her feuds with Lillian Hellman and Tennessee Williams. Most of this is divine, but sometimes the show becomes vulgar and crude — suffice it to say, there are more references to female genitalia than in a marathon reading of “The Vagina Monologues.”

Miss Harper’s portrayal of the actress — all thundering delivery and profile poses like the Great Garfield — is larger than life but also enables you to see the greedy, childish need beneath the bravado. What is sad and triumphant about her Tallulah Bankhead is how the spotlight has been turned off her for decades, but she still behaves as if playing to a packed house.

★★★

WHAT: “Looped” by Matthew Lombardo

WHERE: Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 Sundays, and noon June 17, 23 and 24. Through June 28.

TICKETS: $25 to $74

PHONE: 202/488-3300

WEB SITE: www.arena.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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