<b>PLAYBACK:</b>  Jon Levenson (left), Diane Louise Salinger (center), and Brian Harwell (right) star in <i>Looped</i>.

David Bazemore

PLAYBACK:  Jon Levenson (left), Diane Louise Salinger (center), and Brian Harwell (right) star in Looped.

Review: Looped at the New Vic

The Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Production Plays through July 27.

Matthew Lombardo’s eye was keen when he latched onto bad-girl actress Tallulah Bankhead and the true story of a studio dubbing session for her last film, Die! Die! My Darling! (1965). What should have taken a few minutes — the re-recording of a single line — dragged on for an entire day as the flamboyant, coarse, and obstructionist Bankhead grabbed the reigns and steered the session into every possible gutter detour and briar-patch delay. The two studio employees, straight-laced film editor Danny Miller and matter-of-fact soundman Steve, were left cornered with hardly a chair to fend off the tigress. And so stretch the hours of cat and mouse: the company men pushing to wrap-up their day, the tyrannical star answering to no one and no time.

The personality clash between Miller and Bankhead constitutes Lombardo’s play’s chief dramatic tension, the source for most laughs, and the epicenter for eventual transformation — and the casting of Diane Louise Salinger and Jon Levenson is winning here. Bankhead’s are big shoes to fill, and Salinger steps into the stilettos convincingly, giving a captivating performance as the has-been who doesn’t know how to stop acting, ever fending off with below-the-belt wit, while sadly hungering for every ragged remnant of attention. But more, Salinger knows how to keep us guessing by blurring the line between Bankhead’s method and mania, a guardedness that hides in the open, behind a facade of candidness. One of the marvels of Levenson’s playing of Miller is the long arc of his slow-burning fuse. When Bankhead finally strikes gold in her digs for emotional reality and Miller erupts, the relief is visceral. Brian Harwell adds just enough straight talk in his supporting role as Steve to balance out and buffer the exaggerated leads.

The marvel with Looped is the way it turns this one incident — a few hours in a Los Angeles sound studio — into a kind of epitome of Bankhead’s life, and an intersection of destiny. “You can tell strangers things you can’t tell anyone else,” says Bankhead to Miller. Catalysts don’t always end in combustion; sometimes they clarify.

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