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Photo Source: Carol Rosegg
Nobody likes a good Tallulah Bankhead story more than I—in fact, I'll launch into my deep-throated imitation and call you "Dahling" at the least provocation—but even I get a bit tired if it goes on for two hours. That's the trouble with "Looped," Matthew Lombardo's new play, now on Broadway after runs in Pasadena, Calif.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Washington, D.C. Lombardo has taken a Bankhead anecdote and thinly stretched it into a full-length play.

In 1965, the alcoholic star spent an entire day re-recording (or looping) a few lines of dialogue for what turned out to be her final film, a schlock horror flick called "Die, Die, My Darling." Lombardo has reduced the number of lines to one and thrown in a truckload of Bankhead zingers; a couple of excerpts from "A Streetcar Named Desire," in which she gave a famously bad performance; and a soapy subplot involving Danny, the frustrated film editor in charge of the session. The whole affair feels pasted together like a fan's scrapbook. Bits of biography are tossed around with the jokes, and a second-act confrontation with Danny pops out of nowhere. There is potential for a juicy showbiz stage memoir here. Bankhead was on her last legs at this point: dying of emphysema, practically unemployable due to her unreliability, and hopelessly addicted to booze, cigarettes, and cocaine. She had been a great stage comedian and respected dramatic actor, but she allowed her outrageous behavior—both offstage and on—to overwhelm her talent.

There are several memorable one-liners dealing with Bankhead's notorious affairs with both sexes ("[Joan] Crawford was a lousy lay. She kept getting out of bed to beat the children"), substance abuse, and foul language. But if wisecracks are the highlight, you might as well put on a one-woman musical—as Tovah Feldshuh and Helen Gallagher have done—instead of a play, which requires sound structure and character development.

Fortunately, Valerie Harper gives a tour de force performance as the battered but unbowed Bankhead. From the familiar whiskey-and-tobacco voice to the unsteady stagger, Harper captures the voracious and volatile diva. Her timing on the laugh lines is impeccable, and her follow-up reactions wring every last guffaw from them. But she's not just doing a funny impersonation. Though Lombardo's script gives the actor ridiculously obvious cues for serious passion—when Bankhead mentions she never had children or when she's asked to perform a monologue from "Streetcar"—Harper delivers the goods. She invests the heavier moments with the same honesty and concentration as the big-yuck payoffs.

As Danny, Brian Hutchison has been handed a thankless task. For much of the play, he's simply there to feed Harper straight lines, and then he's got to unload his deep, dark secret in a gushy speech accompanied by an ocean of tears. Hutchison finds a clever way out of the predicament by treating Danny's emotional distress as a physical ailment, but he's still the victim of a two-dimensional part. The reliable Michael Mulheren is confined to a sound booth as Steve, the engineer, but fulfills his functional role professionally.

Rob Ruggiero's direction moves the proceedings along at a steady clip, but he can't disguise the fact that "Looped" is pretty thin soup.

Presented by Tony Cacciotti, Chase Mishkin, Bard Theatricals, Lauren Class Schneider, Lawrence S. Toppall, and Leonard Soloway at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 44th St., NYC. Opened March 14 for an open run. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Jay Binder Casting.