Based on real events, Deborah Pershoff has a ball playing the outrageous Tallula Bankhead

Things I knew about Tallulah Bankhead before I saw Looped, now playing at Aurora’s Vintage Theatre: 1. She was an actress. 2. Demi Moore and Bruce Willis named a daughter after her. Things I knew afterward: A lot more, and then I Googled her to fill in the blanks and hear her voice. Looped is a fairly spare production; three actors, one room, no scene or costume changes. And it’s all about Tallulah.

The premise of the play is that Danny Miller (Christian Mast), a hapless film editor, needs to get a clean cut of a single line of Tallulah’s dialogue in order to finish the movie Die, Die Darling. Sound technician Steve (David Bond-Trimble) waits in the wings to assist. It sounds easy enough, but naturally it is anything but. Tallulah (Deborah Pershoff) is late. Then she breezes in, outrageous personality leading the way, completely full of distractions. She needs a drink (many). She needs to talk about herself. She misses the cue. She blows the line — again and again and again.

Deborah Persoff

Deborah Persoff

We learn at the beginning that Danny has his own deadline. He needs to get to the airport, and the film’s producer keeps calling, wondering when he’ll get the cut submitted. Danny becomes increasingly frustrated with the uncontrollable Tallulah, and they spar back and forth, accomplishing very little.

In the second act, Tallulah and Danny both soften a bit, eventually dismissing Steve for a while so they can work some things out. We learn that Danny has secrets and a past of his own, and talking with someone outrageous enough to say whatever she thinks just might help him be honest with himself. More anxious theater goers may feel the contestant tension: Will Tallulah ever get the line right?

Naturally, though, the journey is about more than just that.

A big performance

From the moment Deborah Pershoff enters and delivers her first “Hello, darling,” she absolutely owns the stage. She has some huge personality shoes to fill, and she does it well. Most of the comic timing is dependent on her delivery, which is always on point. The other two actors are also well-cast and are both competent and believable in their roles, but they often seem like foils for Tallulah, which feels like the point.

Initially, Tallulah comes across as fairly shocking, both in language and behavior. Reading about her afterward, I found that most of her vulgar lines were things she actually said. She was famous for simply taking off her clothes at parties. I couldn’t help thinking that if this sounded scandalous to the 2019 ear, what must they have thought of her 50 years ago and more?

The second act is really where she is humanized. We see that she is more than just her personality. Pershoff does an excellent job portraying the vulnerability that hides underneath Tallulah’s outrageousness. There’s an affection for her, shared by the actors and director, and doubtless the playwright. It shines through, even when the other characters are exasperated with her.

While the set is uncomplicated, it does evoke 1965 Los Angeles. The program notes that all the pieces are for sale, and after looking at the beautiful long table for over an hour, I started wondering whether it would fit in my house — and if I should create a new line item in my budget for furniture from plays.

Initially, there are some aspects of the plot that seem confusing and hard to follow, but most of that is resolved by the halfway point. It’s possible that they might be less confusing for those who are more knowledgeable about Tallulah going in. The good news, I think, is that the performance is enjoyable whether you are a Tallulah Bankhead aficionado or not.

And if you weren’t previously a fan, you may just find yourself becoming one.

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