Not having carved out a significant television or film career, legendary stage actress Tallulah Bankhead has little name recognition value with the younger generations. But among theatre people and theatre lovers, her memory is deeply cherished, both for her talent as an actress (in the original productions of The Skin of Our Teeth and The Little Foxes) and her talent for life (alcohol, cocaine, bisexuality, general outrageousness). That said, one wonders whether her following is not actually greater than previously imagined, for no less than three separate plays about Bankhead are set to hit the boards within a month of each other.
All three productions could be described as vehicles for the actresses playing the trombone-voiced, gimlet-eyed, Southern politician's daughter. Indeed, the three Tallulahs — Tovah Feldshuh, Kathleen Turner and Nan Schmid — have been nursing their respective shows for some time. The first of the trio to open, Feldshuh's Tallulah Hallelujah! (previously known as Southern Comfort and Tallulah Tonight!), began previews at the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre on Sept. 19. This venture, in its various versions, has been bouncing around the Mid-Atlantic since 1998. Set at a USO fundraiser in 1956, the conceptual piece has Bankhead "vamping for five" for the audience while headliner Ella Fitzgerald is delayed. Naturally, Tallulah shares stories of her life.
Turner, too, has been involved with her Bankhead project, called simply Tallulah, since 1998 and first played it at Florida's Coconut Grove Playhouse in January 1999. She then took a break from the show to play a very Bankhead-like part in London -- Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Returning to the States, Turner opens the 10-city national tour of the Sandra Ryan Heyward-penned one-person show Oct. 3 in Minneapolis. In this one, the government calls on La Bankhead to host a dinner for President Harry S. Truman. (TB was apparently a very civic-minded gal). The evening takes place as she prepares for the event, finding time to, yes, share the story of her life.
In Dahling — which has the lowest profile of the three shows and opens Oct. 19 at the Grove Street Playhouse in Greenwich Village — we don't hear about Bankhead's life but see it, from birth to fame, flash before our eyes by way of eight actors playing 55 characters. Playwright and star Schmid, a vet of The Second City improv company in Chicago, says the show will be zany, "because her life was zany."
If alive today, Bankhead doubtless would jump at the chance to star in Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. And she would have plenty of chances, too, on both coasts and in the heartland. The show has been playing at NYC's Westside Theatre since October 1999, its longevity fueled in part by the parade of name actresses that have marched across its stage in first two-week, and now three-week intervals. Now, beginning Oct. 13, what's good for New York is good for Los Angeles. Ensler's play will open at L.A.'s Canon Theatre on Oct. 13 and follow the same stars-a-plenty format, beginning with the Off-Broadway primed trio of Rosie Perez, Julie Kavner and Swoosie Kurtz. Meanwhile, a Chicago mounting (part of a three-city tour) will open Sept. 24. Perhaps thinking Midwest audiences will need a little hand holding with this play, Ensler herself will star in the road show. Rob Ackerman's provocative workplace play, Tabletop, a summer hit for The Working Theatre in Manhattan, will return to play a 12-week commercial run in October at American Place Theatre. The unusual comedy earned plaudits from a wide variety of critics, including a rave from John Simon, who rarely ventures beyond the boundaries of Broadway and Off-Broadway.
Who will occupy the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, meanwhile, is an open question. The giant musical house has not had a client since the British-born Jesus Christ Superstar cleared out on Sept. 3, and, according to The New York Times, doesn't have a new show booked. Reportedly, two of the likely contenders are revivals of 42nd Street and West Side Story. Nothing so surprising in that, except that the 42nd Street is from Amsterdam and the West Side Story is from Milan. Should either take up residence, this Broadway theatre, named after one of the most American Americans who ever lived, will, ironically, earn a reputation for foreign born entertainment.
Finally, you can take the boy out of the rock musical, but you can't take the rock music out of the boy. Adam Pascal, once Roger in Jonathan Larson's Rent, now an Egyptian prince in Elton John's Aida, will return to his roots on Sept. 28 when his rock band performs at Upstairs at Studio 54 in Manhattan. And Pascal isn't the only Rent alum rocking in Manhattan this autumn. Actor Anthony Rapp, who played Mark Cohen, the filmmaker at the center of Larson's musical, will perform with his new rock band at Fez, on Oct. 8 and 15.
--By Robert Simonson