05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Stage Door: Looped, Pride

"I'm bisexual - buy me something and I'll be sexual!" says Tallulah Bankhead, shrieking with laughter, cigarette in one hand, drink in the other. She's witty, bombastic and smart -- a larger-than-life character with hidden depths. And thanks to Looped, the hugely entertaining play by Matthew Lombardo at the Lyceum, she's a force of nature that lights up the stage.

Bankhead is magnificently played by Valerie Harper, who captures her famed mannerisms, as well as the woman beneath the caricature, with style. She paints a portrait of tortured talent wrapped in an intoxicated shell. Bankhead was renown for her outrageous exploits; she's a tiger, but a wounded one. Harper reveals her strengths and vulnerability; her Bankhead is reflective, but never maudlin. She makes her own rules -- and lives with the consequences.

The play's title -- which works on two levels -- is taken from a real-life incident. In one of her last films, Die, Die My Darling, Bankhead is called to a Hollywood recording studio in 1965 to loop a line of movie dialogue. What should have been a quick take reportedly took eight hours to finish. Lombardo has used it to kick-start the story of Bankhead's life, peppered with the quotes that made her legendary.

We meet her on a sound stage with Danny Miller, an exasperated film editor (Brian Hutchison), and a sound engineer (Michael Mulheren). As befits her reputation, she's late. And when she arrives, in a whirlwind of fur and attitude, we know we're in for a wild ride.

Looped, like Lombardo's Tea at Five, the Katherine Hepburn bio-play, showcases a true star. Bankhead's career spanned stage, screen, radio and TV, though her claim to fame was performances on Broadway (The Little Foxes, The Skin of Our Teeth and the West End) . Her grandfather was a U.S. senator, while her father served as a congressman and Speaker of the House. But Bankhead, never a conventional Southern belle, is at her best when she cracks wise. "Here's a rule I recommend," she tells Miller. "Never practice two vices at once." Astounded by her liberal use of drugs, she snorts: "Cocaine isn't habit-forming. I should know -- I've been using it for years."

It's her irreverence that ultimately exposes Miller (perfectly played by Hutchison), whose story is a poignant counterpoint to Bankhead's. "If I had to live my life again," she tells him, "I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner." As directed by Rob Ruggiero, who has nicely timed the tension and the laughter, Bankhead's fierce refusal to comport herself is irreverent and admirable. She was liberated long before the idea became acceptable. She may be looped, but she is always the genuine article.

Authenticity is also the subject of The Pride, now at the Lucille Lortel. Alexi Kaye Campbell's play is a sensitive examination of gay life in 1958, when men were closeted and language was coded, and 2008, when sexual freedoms are the norm. The playwright skillfully exposes the guilt, desire and repression of the Fifties, as he examines the relationship between Philip (Hugh Dancy) and Oliver (Ben Whishaw) and wife Sylvia (Andrea Riseborough), caught in the middle. The three reprise their characters, at least in name, 50 years later. The choices are now myriad, but the issues of guilt and desire remain. Adam James, who plays three different men, is adept in each role.

Campbell is exploring interesting psychological terrain here -- and his characters ring true. He is well-served by an excellent ensemble and director Joe Mantello, who understands the delicacy of mixed emotions and the emotional brutality of the promiscuous.

The one downside is the occasionally preachy aspect of a touching production; some of the Fifties' dialogue sounds suspiciously revisionist, as if Oliver is channeling a 21st-century activist. The Pride, for all its smarts, is preaching to the converted.