TALLULAH, Shubert Theatre. What becomes a legend most? Certainly not this one-woman play. Kathleen Turner as Broadway star Tallulah Bankhead has the right sultry presence, husky voice, and ribald sense of humor; what she hasn’t got is a script that makes much sense.
Playwright Sandra Ryan Heyward has set the action in Bankhead’s boudoir in 1948: afraid she’s getting old, Tallulah is foolishly hatching plans to leave the theater and pursue a career in politics. The premise is promising, but Heyward’s clumsy cobbling together of epigrams, biographical factoids, and mawkish moralizing doesn’t work. The attention paid to the political background of Tallulah’s family leaves precious little time for her accomplishments as an actress. Audiences unfamiliar with theater lore may be left bewildered by the scattershot references to it, and viewers hungry for inside gossip on Bankhead’s relationships with the likes of John Barrymore, Billie Holiday, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein will have to settle for a quick allusion to Gary Cooper and rather extensive commentary on now forgotten actor Helmut Dantine.
The blue one-liners are pretty funny: Tallulah says her favorite number is “72–that’s 69 with three people watching.” (Absent, however, is her famous response when asked if a handsome actor was gay: “I don’t know, dahling–he never sucked my cock.”) But Heyward’s efforts to balance the laughs with psychological insights are lame and unconvincing, leaving Turner as much adrift as the characters in Lifeboat, Bankhead’s most famous film.