Theater Reviews: LOOPED (Pasadena Playhouse) and ROSE (Odyssey Theatre)

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by Harvey Perr on August 1, 2008

in Theater-Los Angeles


In the theater, the first-rate performer still holds sway over the second-rate play. I was reminded of this recently when asked by someone what she should see if she sees only one play in New York. I did not recommend August: Osage County or South Pacific, but Boeing-Boeing. Why? Because Mark Rylance gives one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances that, quite simply, must be experienced to be appreciated.  Boeing-Boeing is not a great farce — I’m not even sure it’s a good one — but to be in the presence of Mr. Rylance’s artful shenanigans makes it a totally satisfying evening of theater.

And, here in L.A., where I am on vacation from the theater for the summer, I recently saw two actors do yeoman work in material that tested but did not stretch their abilities, but the brilliance with which both actors met the challenges that the authors did supply was awe-inspiring.

In Rose, Martin Sherman, the author of Bent, has tried to tell the history of the Jews from shtetl through the Holocaust through the Exodus to Israel and coming to America and finally the management of a Miami hotel that eventually becomes a retirement home, all encompassed in a single character. If Sherman had a sense of humor, he might have written a Jewish Auntie Mame, but he wants to embrace the heartbreak, which is an honorable enough endeavor, but predictability keeps the tragedy at bay. It is daunting to sit through almost three hours which yields few surprises, once you see what it is Sherman is trying to do. If Sherman had written less — much less –  and delved more deeply, when he chose instead to be glib, then her story might have become more universal drama, rather than the compilation of clichés it ultimately adds up to.

But in its current production at L.A.’s Odyssey Theater, under Judy Chaikin’s beautifully calibrated direction, Naomi Newman infuses Rose with radiant power and consistently makes the character interesting, even when the play fails her. For one thing, it is extraordinary to see a 78-year-old actor play an 80-year-old- woman, and, above all, to see, in her, all the sexual vibrancy not only in her memories of the past but in her presence today before us. The play gets better as its subject matters get less significant — which is, in itself, a fascinating process to behold — but Ms. Newman gets so deeply inside Sherman’s creation that she transcends all that is potentially irritating in the play. This is a warm, generous, often startling, always absolutely true piece of acting. No playwright could have asked for a more graceful, intelligent and moving interpreter.

And at the Pasadena Playhouse, which is, incidentally, one of the loveliest theater in the entire country, there is a play about an imagined event in the last days in the life of Tallulah Bankhead, whose legend was printed far too long before her demise, and who seemed doomed to spend most of her life perpetuating it. The play is called Looped, and it is by Matthew Lombardo, who clearly has a penchant for this sort of thing, since he apparently had something of a success with a play called Tea at Five, about an imagined event in the life of Katherine Hepburn. It would be difficult to say that this new play comes anywhere near revealing anything about Bankhead that might make us look anew at either the legend or the woman. But Lombardo, too, has an interpreter of his material for which he should be humbly grateful. Her name is Valerie Harper and she is, to put it simply, wonderful. She captures perfectly the vocal inflections and qualities — somewhere between a Southern drawl and a touch of affected British refinement — and the style — the wobbly movements under the weight of the mink coat, the throaty laugh, the almost self-conscious and comic absorption in her own mannerisms. But this is not merely an impersonation. It is a loving portrait, going more deeply into the character than the material allows.

Although the play’s premise — that Ms. Bankhead has to “loop” some lines for her last film, Die! Die! My Darling!, months after she has finished and forgotten the film — promises a journey into campiness, Lombardo does try to move into richer areas — largely, by concocting a contretemps between Bankhead and the director of the looping session in which Bankhead reveals some tortured truths about herself and the young director gets an opportunity to see the woman behind the mask. It is only when he, in turn, is forced to face his own problems that the play truly turns to mush. What is revealed may be new to the character, but the audience has been there too often to do anything but hope that it passes.

But one of the facts that does come up is that Tennessee Williams wanted Bankhead to play Blanche DuBois in the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire, a part she refused. Years later, when she was too old to play the part, she played it anyway — at Miami’s Coconut Grove Playhouse and in New York’s City Center — and is remembered for its doomed recklessness. Here, Ms. Harper gets a chance to show how beautifully Bankhead understood the role in her heart even if she couldn’t carry it out in performance and, in doing so, gives her own burning audition for the part herself. Ms. Harper’s reading is complex, poetic, bold and all too brief. When one comes across an actress as good as Valerie Harper, who is seen here at her very best, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the idea of her playing Blanche really whets one’s appetite. But in the meantime, her Bankhead is good enough.

Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
ends on August 3, 2008
for tickets, call 626.356.7529 or visit Pasadena Playhouse
photos by Craig Schwartz

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd in West L.A,
ends on August 31, 2008
for tickets, call 310.477.2055 or visit Odyssey
photo by Ken Friedman

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