The comedy "Looped" – opening at Parker Playhouse next Tuesday for a six-day run before going on national tour – was never supposed to happen.
And the show about flamboyant actress Tallulah Bankhead near the end of her tumultuous life almost didn’t come off at all…even after rehearsals had started.
"I had no interest in writing a play about Tallulah Bankhead," says Fort Lauderdale snowbird and playwright Matthew Lombardo. "I was at a dinner party in New York several years ago and we were all sharing stories. This one guy started talking about how he had worked with Tallulah on this movie back in the Sixties called 'Die, Die, My Darling' and she had to come in to loop a couple of lines. She came in drunk and coked up and she just couldn't get the line. It should have taken just a few minutes and it ended up taking all day."
The process was – at first - a laugh riot to Lombardo, who also wrote "High" starring Kathleen Turner (as a drug counseling nun) and "Tea at Five" with Kate Mulgrew (as Katharine Hepburn).
"There’s this tape going around of the recording back in 1965," explains Lombardo, who wrote the play while staying in his Oakland Park house. "It’s a thirty minute tape. Of course she always had this entourage around her – caddies she called them. They were gay men she hired to be around her and help her. Well, one of them was recording the session. It was so hysterical. I listened to it over and over and laughing and laughing. Then I wasn't laughing as much. It was getting sort of sad. Her entire life of drinking and drugs and promiscuity, it caught up with her. And she became a joke. One of the handlers said that later she even cried. And I thought: That's a great idea for a play."
To be fair, it WAS a tricky line: "And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has in literal effect closed the church to me."
After a play reading with Elizabeth Ashley, "Looped" had two productions in 2008 and 2009 (including a stint in West Palm Beach), all of them starring Valerie Harper of "Mary Tyler Moore" and "Rhoda" fame. Harper even took the show to Broadway in 2010. But for this run the actress' health failed her during rehearsals as the lung cancer she recently wrote about in her memoir "I, Rhoda" returned.
"Hart to Hart" star Stefanie Powers stepped into the role. Powers co-starred with Bankhead in the movie "Die, Die, My Darling," which sparked Lombardo's play.
"I had a working relationship with her, which was through the film," says Powers. "But afterward I did have the great privilege to call on her when ever I was in town. My mother encouraged that. She always said, 'Remember to call Tallulah when you're in New York…You'll always be grateful you did.' And she was right. There were several generations between us in our ages, but she was always receptive and very hospitable."
Lombardo adds that while he was stressed out losing his first leading lady and good friend from the play a week into rehearsal, "God had another plan for this. Stephanie is going to be fantastic. And she has the voice down and all the subtleties of Tallulah. What better actress could I ask for than one who not only played opposite of [Tallulah], but played in the very film that 'Looped' is based on?"
IF YOU GO
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Parker Playhouse, 707 N.E. 8th St. in Fort Lauderdale
Contact: 954-462-0222 or ParkerPlayhouse.com