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Valerie Harper on Broadway and Facebook

April 1, 2010 |  9:00 am

Looped2 If like me, you find yourself dallying more and more with social media (my time waster of choice is Facebook), you might want to consider ways to get a little work done while you’re commenting on your friend’s umpteenth Chihuahua photo gallery.

As a theater critic, the opportunities for professional advancement are endless. Facebook and Twitter extend an open invitation for shameless self-promotion. There are always reviews to post and articles to Tweet. Then there’s all that reading material, conveniently left by like-minded others, to plow through.  As for cultural developments — sometimes mistaken for gossip — it’s amazing what you can discover at the virtual water cooler.

Lately on Facebook I’ve been enjoying the updates of Valerie Harper, who’s currently starring on Broadway in “Looped.” She’s been documenting the backstage ritual of greeting fellow actors and celebrities after her show, and in the process giving the public a lesson in graciousness under cyber scrutiny.

Harper received strong reviews for her larger than life portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead, the subject of Matthew Lombardo’s play. I adored Harper’s performance when I reviewed the show’s world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, but the drama struck me as remedial, a point that wasn’t overlooked by the Broadway critics.

"Looped" could use some box office help, which is why the producers (led by Harper’s husband, Tony Cacciotti) must be delighted by the way this four-time Emmy winner is using her celebrity to help bring theater marketing into the 21st century.  Not only is Harper on Facebook and Twitter but her show has its own Facebook fan page, with more fans than any other play on Broadway, according to the production’s press rep.

As a critic, I’m persona non grata backstage, so I’m naturally curious to see how actors negotiate the awkward two-step of playing host and idol. Harper's amiable nature made her a natural as Rhoda, Mary’s by turns wise-cracking and self-deprecating best friend on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and later her own successful spinoff. And she definitely has a knack for putting people at ease, even with her face only half out of its Bankhead makeup (the leftover lipstick makes her look like the Joker at times).

When Lily Tomlin drops by with her brother, Harper pays them both equal attention. And when Stefanie Powers, flaunting a little Tallulah saltiness herself, arrives on the scene, Harper explains how carefully she’s been caring for the orchid Powers sent as a gift. With Stephen Colbert, she jokes about how playing Bankhead isn’t half as fatiguing as it would be playing in Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”

Nearly every day there’s another photo posted of someone famous -- Moore, of course was there, as was Tovah Feldshuh and Michele Lee.  But my favorite celebrity cameo is by Mario Cantone, who was at the show's opening night party at Sardi’s. Footage captures the comedian reluctantly offering a sample of his own Bankhead, which he points out is really more Kathleen Turner than Black Widow.   

Harper is obviously invested in this gamble of bringing “Looped” to Broadway, which is why she’s willing to work so hard after the curtain call. But the show’s innovative marketing campaign is lending a new dimension to the peculiar intimacy the public feels with a beloved TV star and is showing what the theater will have to do catapult itself out of the far more lackadaisical pre-BlackBerry-and-iPhone age. 

-- Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty

Photo: Valerie Harper. Credit: Carol Rosegg