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Flamboyant ‘Tallulah,’ Courtesy of Bailey

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Jim Bailey provides extravagant fun as Tallulah Bankhead in Charles Rome Smith’s unwieldy “Tallulah and Tennessee” at Theatre West.

Primarily a stage star, Bankhead was known for her flamboyance and cutting wit. Most theatergoers today never saw her in person and probably aren’t very familiar with her relatively obscure movies or TV appearances. So they’ll simply enjoy Bailey’s impersonation without meticulously inspecting it, as they might if he were playing, say, Bette Davis, who had the Bankhead-like role in “All About Eve.”

Smith’s play finds Bankhead in her declining years, in the early ‘60s, when she’s hoping for a comeback in a new play by her friend Tennessee Williams. If Bailey isn’t as svelte as the earlier, more public Bankhead, it’s understandable. Besides, his legs--the one part of Bankhead’s body she proudly exposes in the play--look slim and trim enough to merit the attention.

Swathed in a succession of colorful outfits designed by Alexa M. Stone--from nightgown to evening gown to fur coat--Bailey conveys the necessary verve and venom. But he doesn’t forget that he’s part of an ensemble. His exchanges with the other players create some deliciously charged comic moments that would be missing if this were just a solo show.

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Still, Smith’s script betrays some uncertainly over how to handle those other characters.

For much of the play, the focus is on Bankhead’s new assistant, David (Kevin Symons). He’s sent to Bankhead by friends concerned about her self-destructive qualities, and he appears to have some professional background in dealing with demons like hers. At first, the conflict between them, tinged with a suggestion of sexual neediness on her part, appears to be the main narrative thrust. David’s importance is emphasized again when he becomes the intermediary between Bankhead and Williams (George Tovar, convincingly wry), and when we learn that he has his own stormy, if insufficiently explained, history with the playwright.

The two title characters have no scenes together until the second act, when they get a big blowup that’s almost immediately resolved so that they can share an upbeat final curtain together. Meanwhile, the previously ubiquitous David is missing from the last couple of scenes, after he storms out with a gesture that seems uncharacteristically irresponsible. It looks like David’s part was truncated simply to justify the play’s attention-getting title.

Betty Garrett--who’s almost as much a legend in L.A. as Tallulah was in New York--plays Bank-head’s older friend Estelle Winwood to perfection, alternately tsk-tsking and trying to suppress her amusement over her friend’s more outrageous moments.

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Smith directed, which may have been a mistake. The production’s pacing and projection could use some sharpening.

* “Tallulah and Tennessee,” Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 7. $15. (888) 551-WEST. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.


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