A Billy Masters Q&A
Matthew Lombardo knows all about addiction.His play "High", seen in Boston with Kathleen Turner last season, took a serious look at the subject. But this year, he brings his first Broadway play, “Looped”, to the Cutler Majestic Theatre (April 30—May 5).It's a far more comical and broad view on the subject via Tallulah Bankhead, a woman notorious for indulging in everything to an excess.
Billy Masters: In "Looped", Bankhead's excesses provide you with an endless supply of outrageous laughs. Did you have any hesitation about using addiction for comedy?
Matthew Lombardo: Never. Tallulah would always be the first person to poke fun at herself, especially when it came to her own vices. Her delicious self-deprecating humor is what made her such a legend. In my book, nothing is off limits when it comes to comedy -- as long as it remains truthful.
Billy: If you'd written "Looped" after "High", would it be the same play we see here?
Matthew: Hell no! I was living my own existence of drinking, drugs and promiscuity when I wrote “Looped.” I really don’t think I could have written Tallulah as well as I did without living Tallulah as I wrote her.“Looped” was pre-sobriety. “High” was post.
Billy: Given the dual meaning of the word "Looped", it's a perfect title (the play is set in a studio where Bankhead is re-recording—or "looping"—a line for the film "Die! Die! My Darling!").Did you have it in mind before you started?
Matthew: Titles of my plays always seem to reveal themselves long before the actual writing begins. At first, it’s all very blurry and scattered up there in my crazy mind. But once I can visualize the big picture, I can sit down and start writing the play.
Billy: Valerie Harper (who originated the role on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award) was in rehearsals for the national tour when everything quickly changed.How did all that transpire?
Matthew: We knew during those first few days that something wasn’t quite right. Val couldn’t remember her lines, which was peculiar because she'd performed this role hundreds of times. She soon began slurring her speech and was immediately taken to the hospital. A few days later, we learned that Val was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was heartbreaking and so unbelievable that this tragedy could happen to such a lovely woman.
Billy: You had virtually no time to re-cast.How did Stefanie Powers get involved?
Matthew: The director and I had met Stefanie years ago when we were initially casting the role and just fell in love with her. She was the immediate and obvious choice to replace Val -- not only because she is such a terrific actress but because she also had a working and personal relationship with Tallulah.
Billy: That's what makes her casting kind of brilliant.After all, she was the "Darling" in "Die! Die! My Darling!” Could you have imagined this scenario in your wildest dreams?
Matthew: My wildest dreams are pretty out there—so yes.
Billy: When I spoke with Stefanie on the opening night of the tour, she told me that the key to her interpretation was to play Tallulah as you wrote her—not as she knew her.
Matthew: Stefanie carries the one trump card that none of us have: she knew Bankhead. And it’s true—she does play the character as written because she trusts the words. But that trust goes both ways. I also trust her talent enough to give her the liberty to make this character her own and loosen things up. There’s a freedom in our collaboration. I think that’s why her performance is so shockingly authentic.
Billy: What blew me away was how funny she is.I've seen her onstage before, but this was a revelation.In some ways, the play actually seems funnier with her in it.
Matthew: It all goes back to truth. The more believable the character is, the funnier it is for the audience. Stefanie never plays the punch lines. She plays the truth in what she is saying and doing which inevitably makes the words and the situations all the more hysterical. She really is giving a legendary performance!
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