"Everyone has their vices," says Tallulah Bankhead, as reincarnated in Matthew Lombardo's play Looped. "Mine just all come out to play at the same time."
The original misbehaving celebrity - if the Alabama-born theater and film actress were around today, she could provide enough fodder for a dozen Entertainment Tonight-type shows for years - Bankhead is ripe for renewed appreciation.
Lombardo has crafted an amusing, mostly involving vehicle for that resuscitation, and with Valerie Harper in the driver's seat, Looped gets a spirited spin in the Arena Stage production at the Lincoln Theatre.
The playwright was inspired by what sounds like the ultimate party recording - a 1965 audio tape of a not-exactly-sober Bankhead taking eight hours to dub (or "loop") a few lines for her final movie, Die, Die My Darling. Lombardo ups the comic potential by creating a scenario where Bankhead and a frustrated film editor struggle through the looping process for just one, overwrought, 20-word sentence.
Set in an Los Angeles recording studio, the play reveals a calculated side here and there, creaking most audibly as it conjures excuses for the antagonism between Bankhead and Danny Miller, the put-upon editor confronting his own inner demons and messy personal life while trying to cope with Tallulah's tantrums.
Some of this, especially the inevitable, it-all-comes-out (no pun intended) second act, feels manipulative and forced. But, before you know it, there's another zinger from what Danny calls Bankhead's "pocketful of punch lines" to make up for any not-quite-convincing lulls.
Like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, Bankhead had an indelible voice and speech cadence, ripe for imitating. And there was the Tallulah trademark - the catch-all "dahling" that she used for everyone because, as she explains here, "all my life I've been terrible at remembering people's names. I was at a party once and introduced a friend of mine as Martini. Her name was actually Olive."
That line can be found almost verbatim in a 1964 AP story on Bankhead. It's typical of the authentic ring that Lombardo's dialogue has in Looped. There's hardly a word that doesn't sound as if Bankhead said it or, at least, thought it. (One exception is a gratuitous slap at Joan Crawford, included for a cheap, Mommie, Dearest-prompted laugh - Bankhead died long before that now discredited assault on Crawford was created.)
Harper, the popular TV star of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff Rhoda, wisely doesn't go overboard in trying to capture Bankhead's vocal delivery. She gets close enough to that distinctive fusion of purr, snarl and vestigial drawl to evoke the real thing, without ever slipping into camp.
Above all, Harper provides a thoroughly persuasive physical portrayal of the woman who, in Bankhead biographer Brendan Gill's phrase, "invented by trial and error an exceptional self, which she flung with a child's impudent pretense of not caring straight into the face of the world."
Harper, outfitted in a very Tallulah-like cocktail dress by costume designer William Ivey Long, makes every swig of booze, pop of a pill, puff of a cigarette and toss of the head seem thoroughly natural as she chews up the evocative set by Adrian W. Jones.
Although Harper doesn't quite rise to the challenge of reciting some Blanche Dubois lines from A Streetcar Named Desire - Looped gets theatrical and biographical mileage out of recalling Bankhead's disastrous attempt at that role in a 1956 revival of the play - her performance is never less than assured and engaging.
She has a successful foil in Jay Goede as Danny. His effectively nuanced characterization even holds up in his big confessional scene. Michael Karl Orenstein delivers the lines of Steve, the much put-upon sound engineer, in a fitting deadpan.
In the end, Looped provides a hearty reminder of what good company Bankhead must have been. How can you not fall under the spell of someone whose definition of bisexual is "Buy me something, I'll be sexual"? Or who declares: "No one had a better upbringing than me. And just look how deliciously disgraceful I turned out."
But Lombardo doesn't settle for mere nightclub-y entertainment. His obvious affection for Bankhead, his determination to make of her something much more than a ripe target for impersonation, comes through at every turn.
Harper clearly gets that extra layer; she's after something three-dimensional here, too, and it pays off particularly well near the end of the play, in the slyly matter-of-fact way she delivers the line: "There is always going to be pain in life. But suffering? That one is optional."
The image of a defiantly looped Tallulah refusing to wallow in that option registers as forcefully as all the potent one-liners.
If you go
Looped runs through June 28 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St., N.W., Washington. $25 to $74. Call 202-488-3300 or go to arenastage.org.