Gangway, Daahlings! Tallulah's back in town, arriving three sheets to the wind March 14 in rickety high heels at the Lyceum, Broadway's oldest theatre and only a few months younger than what La Bankhead would have been (108, if you please). She arrived in Looped, in all senses of that word, in the form of TV's former Rhoda Morgenstern, Valerie Harper, dropping the F-bomb the second she hit the stage as if to eradicate any image you might have of her. The only constant is the kind of classic comic timing you can set a Swiss watch by. Not for nothing was her mother on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Rhoda" played by Nancy Walker.
This timing gets a rat-a-tat-tat workout in the vehicle Matthew Lombardo has scripted and Rob Ruggiero has directed. It catches Tallulah on what would be her last day of film work, at a Los Angeles recording studio trying to approximate an impossibly contorted line of expositional dialogue for a 1965 penny-dreadful British horror flick titled, Tallulah-like, "Die! Die! My Darling!"
Naturally, she reported to work thoroughly sloshed and tardy, much to the teeth-grinding consternation of the sound engineer on duty (Michael Mulheren) and the poor flunky assigned to squeeze that single line of dialogue out of her (Brian Hutchison). After many failed felled swoops at the assignment, she stalked off the soundstage, returning after intermission contrite and coked-up ("There was the longest line in the ladies' room," she explained, dusting her nose a bit). And the beat goes on, one long Ta-loop-de-loop till relative recording success is met.
After the play, first-nighters retired to Tallulah's favorite saloon, Sardi's, where the after-party was splashed over three floors and remembered Tallulah lines bounced off the walls at every level. Press was poised in the cubbyhole bar by the entrance. Much of the post-show chit-chat centered on how precise and persuasive the impersonation was, and how much humanity Harper was able to slip in between wisecracks. Of course, a case could be made that the Bankhead persona fit her like — well, like the silk charmeuse she traipses around in, loose-legged and seductive, causing you to seriously wonder whether she is fettered by any undergarments.
William Ivey Long, who designed the inviting frock, kept its mystery. "That's the magic of the theatre," he twinkled mischievously. "It's a very mobile thin satin. I thought I knew something about it, being from the South, and, when I started researching it, I realized that I didn't so I've learned even more doing that dress."
It wears well with legend-becoming mink, too. Bette Davis worked the fur a lot in "All About Eve" to suggest Tallulah. "That's very much the Margo Channing neckline," Long pointed out. "They all wore it in that period. This is a real mink, from a vintage collection. That's the real cut. Those animals died about 50 years ago."
Harper made her star entrance at Sardi's fashionably last-to-arrive, peppy as all get-out (once a Michael Kidd dancer, always a Michael Kidd dancer). She dove right into the interviews, betraying nary a hint of the hard work she had just put in on stage.
She knew exactly what she wanted audiences to take away from her show. "Hurting ribs," she said, "from splitting their sides laughing. It's always like that, too. Even quiet matinee days where the ladies are not so fond of the F-bomb, they get with it and go, 'Oh, yes, that's the way Tallulah used to talk,' and they kinda come along.
"It was a great script that was sent to us. Tony Cacciotti, my darling husband, said, 'I can produce this, and I'd like to take it to Broadway.' This is our fourth venue: Pasadena, South Florida, Washington, DC's Arena Stage and now here.
"The show has grown at every stop. There have been rewrites all the way along but, more than anything, there was finessing the directing. Rob Ruggiero has worked very hard on all the characters. I had two new actors for Broadway. This was three weeks of rehearsals, then three weeks of previews — very helpful to be really ready."
Her writer and her director were both making their Broadway debuts with Looped, and at the curtain call, she brought them out to take their bows. Unsurprisingly, both had valentines for Valerie Harper. "We've been friends for years," Ruggiero relayed. "As lovely as you think she is, she is even better. She's a brilliant comedienne, a wonderful collaborator and a dear friend. I grew up as a kid wanting my best friend to be Rhoda. It's better having Valerie as my best friend."
Harper, he said, was adamant about making her Tallulah more than a caricature. "This has nothing to do with a send-up. She really does Tallulah with great integrity and conviction. She loves Tallulah and wants to do right by her, and I think she did."
There's a pretty steady explosion of laughs all evening, although you couldn't prove it by Lombardo: "Sometimes, I don't even hear a lot of them because this whole Broadway-debut thing is so surreal. I'm just riding the wave."
Acting icons in crisis is becoming a specialty for Lombardo, who served Tea at Five for Kate Mulgrew. A one-woman show, it looked in on Katharine Hepburn in September 1938 when her film career was in shambles and a hurricane was bearing down on the old Hepburn homestead in Old Saybrook, CT.
Similarly, Looped finds Tallulah in desperate disarray. "It gives us an opportunity to really explore Tallulah's life. She had some wonderful successes, but her behavior caused her to have a lot of failures, personally and professionally." Lombardo was prompted to write this play when he heard an abbreviated tape of that actual session. "It was about 45 minutes," he said. "What was just going to be a one-hour event turned into something like seven or eight hours. She was very belligerent, very frustrated, but I also heard the alcoholism and the drug addiction really have an effect on her career. I was touched, and I wanted to write it."
Next for Lombardo and Ruggiero is another—a literal — High. That's the title of a play specifically written for Kathleen Turner, who, like Tovah Feldshuh and Helen Gallagher, has had her share of Tallulah tours.
"It's about a recovering-alcoholic nun, who is sent a 19-year-old heroin addict," Lombardo explained. "She has to help him find God and get clean. It's really about the belief in miracles that ultimately changes. It premieres in Hartford July 9-Aug. 22, then we go to Cincinnati and St. Louis, and then we come into New York."
Mulheren and Hutchison, both of whom have been around the Broadway block a few times, were equally effusive about the star to whom they lent their support.
"Valerie is one of the most generous people I've ever worked with," declared Hutchison. "She just constantly wants to make things better and deeper. I just think the world of her. She has been fantastic from the get-go, and she has never changed."
This, mind you, from the guy who spends most of the play fencing and fuming with her. "There are a lot of awkward moments for me, just getting the ball kinda thrown back in my face, but I get to do a whole lot of different stuff. It goes from broad comedy at times and reacting to her antics to sort of a tender emotional diva journey."
Mulheren's role of the guy in the sound booth has grown getting to Broadway. "When they did it out of town, the guy was in total darkness, but Matthew took a shine to me early and gave me more dialogue, and of course everything expanded. I got more light from [lighting designer] Ken Billington…"
Paul Haggis, director and author of the Oscar-winning "Crash," was the evening's farthest out-of-left-field first-nighter — but, on closer inspection, not so: "I'm a long-time fan of Valerie Harper. I almost ended her career many years ago with a [TV] show called 'City,' which we did together. It only lasted 13 episodes, but I became a huge fan of hers during that time, and I've been a fan ever since."
She and Joe Sirola go back as well — plus. "I knew Tallulah. As a matter of fact, in her book she said her favorite actor was Joe Sirola. Why? Because from 3 to 3:30, I had a soap opera called 'The Brighter Day,' and she used to watch it every day and contacted me. So when Valerie read the book, she called me up and said, 'Joe, you gotta tell me about Tallulah.' She's wonderful in the role. Right on the button."
Cabaret's Tony- and Oscar-winning Joel Grey was flashing his Kander-&-Ebb button for all to see. "I loved The Scottsboro Boys — wild about it," he volunteered. "What is the matter with That Man [meaning The New York Times naysayer, Ben Brantley]? That was really wrong! I'm hoping they will still bring it to Broadway, because I think in a small theatre it will really play. It will have a great, great black audience — and a white audience as well."
Not only has Bryan Batt gone Hollywood on us (via "Mad Men"), he's gone literary on us as well. His new comedic tome, "She Ain't Heavy — She's My Mother," has a May 4 pub date. "People have told me they've laughed and they've cried," he said, "and there's a lot of Broadway stuff in there. I started writing the stories while I was in Beauty and the Beast. I let some friends read it, and they said, 'You have to continue it.' So I kept on doing it, and I got a book deal. During the entire season of 'Mad Men,' while we were filming last year, I finished it in my trailer."
Matthew Modine arrived with good news from The Miracle Worker: "There are so many families coming to the show. You don't see kids in the audience much — and see them so engaged in the story, learning about Helen Keller and how important it is to persevere and that 'tough love' is often the most necessary option."
Handily winning the most glamorous of the gray-fox couples in attendance were Louise Hirschfeld and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne.
She's just back from the West Coast: "I saw Carol Channing in Palm Springs, and I told her I was going to see Looped ,about Tallulah. She said, 'We were playing theatres that were close to each other, and often after the show she'd come out with just her mink coat on — but I fooled her: I never looked below her throat."
Never one who is informationally challenged, Osborne amplified the topic. "She must have picked that up because I had a friend of mine who worked with Carol Channing a lot, and she used to walk around nude in her dressing room when people were there. Charlton Heston, when he did theatre in L.A., did that, too — a lot."
Comedian and first-nighter Mario Cantone will play Caroline's April 22-24 and then Castro's in San Francisco. Believe it or not, Mr. Ripley, it's his first Frisco gig. "My first time. I've never done it before. I don't like to go out of town too much. I'm a Fraidy Cat."
But he will make the sacrifice for "Sex and the City 2," he said. "I'm preparing for the premiere coming up. After April, I'll go to Rome and London for the premieres."
Other first-nighters included Eddie Izzard; Yank hunk Ivan Hernandez with wife; Steve Hayes (fresh from a Don't Tell Mama gig, "I'm doing YouTube—'Steve Hayes, Tired Old Queen of the Movies'"); Tony winner Ron Rifkin; director-actor Jerry Dixon; character actress Lynn Cohen; and Soap Opera Digest's Carolyn Hinsey.