There are many legendary women of stage & screen but none had a reputation like that of Tallulah Bankhead. Aside from her talent as an actress, she was also known for her sharp wit, raucous laugh and a libido working on overdrive, as she would have been the first to tell you. Well, I am happy to tell you that Tallulah is back in town, if only for a brief visit, in LOOPED, written by Matthew Lombardo, now at the Desert Rose Playhouse. But the best news of all is that the incredible Judith Chapman is the one giving this stunningly magnificent performance as Tallulah.
The play is based on an actual event that took place in an old L.A. recording studio one day in 1965. Ms. Bankhead, had just completed what was sadly to be her last picture, the dreadful thriller DIE, DIE MY DARLING! There was just one more thing for her to do on the movie; one line of dialogue had to be rerecorded and edited into the film, a process known as looping. This should have taken less than an hour. But they were now on Tallulah time and it took more than eight hours to squeeze that one line out of her. The play is a fictionalized version of that 8 hour marathon audio session.
Danny (Mark Fearnow), who is editing the film, goes to the studio to inquire of the audio engineer Steve (Miguel Arballo) why, after more than three hours, the job is not yet completed. Steve replies it would have been except that Tallulah has not yet even arrived. When she does finally stagger into the studio, Danny’s one goal is to get the line recorded and avoid the wrath of the studio executives. But Tallulah has other plans in mind and thus begins a funny and sometimes painful verbal cat and mouse game for the majority of the play.
Under the sharply honed direction of Jim Strait, not a laugh nor painful verbal jab is lost. He allows each actor to go beneath the surface to create multi-layered characters with whom the audience can ultimately feel sympathetic.
Mr. Arballo’s Steve is typical of so many technicians on sets. They just want to get the work done and go home. Anything that puts a delay on that is a cause of irritation so to Steve, Tallulah is about as irritating as they come and it shows.
Danny, as played by Mr. Fearnow, is an editor who has been around the block a few times and has no patience for the unprofessional antics of Ms. Bankhead. After both cajoling her and gently begging her fail to get the one line of dialogue recorded, he ultimately explodes and verbally attacks her in a way that seems to shock him almost as much as she seems amused to have finally gotten a genuine reaction out of him. From this point on she begins to show a real interest and concern for him as eventually he does for her. Both lower their guard and allow the other (and us) to see through the thick veneers they have developed to protect themselves from the uglier side of show business and themselves. This gives Mr. Fearnow a chance to humanize what would otherwise be a very cardboard-like character and allows the audience and ultimately even Tallulah herself to be in his corner.
As Tallulah, Judith Chapman gives a magnificent performance that is not to be missed. Although not doing a total impersonation of Ms. Bankhead’s vocal and physical traits, she wisely opts for capturing the essence of her style in everything she says and in everything she does down to the littlest gesture. She lands every laugh with perfectly timed delivery and can suddenly switch moods, as she does several times during the play, in a way that is totally believable and in-character as opposed to just a necessity of the script. Watching her performance is a master class in the importance of every single detail in creating a fully developed character onstage.
The play runs through Feb. 10, 2019. To order tickets or for more information go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org or call the box office at 760-202-3000.