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Writer Matthew Lombardo, Director Rob Ruggiero Get Looped On Broadway


March 07, 2010

Scott, the manager at a trendy Manhattan restaurant, opened his arms and embraced the two men as they came through the door. Several waiter- actors also broke from working tables in the bustling eatery to greet the new arrivals with big smiles and kisses.

Playwright Matthew Lombardo and director Rob Ruggiero are experiencing Broadway buzz — that heightened attention when you have a new play about to open, and people are wondering if you'll be this spring's hot bold-face name. Lombardo and Ruggiero, two men with Hartford roots who have worked in the theater provinces for years and have landed close but not on the Great White Way, are making their Broadway debuts with "Looped," which opens next Sunday at the Lyceum Theatre.

The three-actor play stars four-time Emmy Award-winner Valerie Harper as outspoken actress Tallulah Bankhead in her fading years. The play takes place during a "looping" session for the 1965 film "Die, Die My Darling," when a drunk and coked-up Bankhead has to rerecord one bit of dialogue. It turns into an all-day event — and a battle between the actress and an uptight and troubled engineer played by Brian Hutchison.

"People are certainly giving us more attention and taking us a little more seriously," says Lombardo over brunch before previews of the play. "Before, I was just a playwright, and now it's: 'This is Matthew, who has a play opening on Broadway.' It's still a little surreal to me."

"It's strange and exciting and just starting to hit us," says Ruggiero, "especially now that we're actually in the theater and not just rehearsing somewhere else. We spent an hour last week just sitting in the orchestra [section] watching the set get loaded in. It was like, 'Wow. We're here.'

"But I haven't been driven to get a Broadway show above everything else," says the director, who for the past 18 years has made Hartford's TheaterWorks his artistic home. "I've wanted to do great work with great artists at great places that can support the work. But all that said, when you get a Broadway show, it's a dream come true. You have to pinch yourself once in a while because you're here, and you're having a costume fitting with William Ivey Long and a lighting design meeting with Ken Billington and talking to the press reps about television commercials."

Lombardo, 45, who was born in Hartford and grew up in Wethersfield, started sending this play out more than three years ago to several regional theaters, including Hartford Stage, which in 2002 premiered "Tea at Five," his one-person stage biography of Katharine Hepburn starring Kate Mulgrew.

"Based on my history there, and the way I conducted myself during 'Tea at Five,'" he says, his voice trailing off. "I was at the height of my [ crystal meth] addiction. I may have burned some bridges over there, and their response to me now is understandable." (Lombardo is in recovery.)

In January 2007, a New York reading of "Looped" with Elizabeth Ashley showed the play had potential, and Sheldon Epps, artistic director of California's Pasadena Playhouse, picked it up for the following year.

Jacques Lamarre, former marketing director at TheaterWorks who was at Hartford Stage during "Tea At Five," suggested Ruggiero would be a good person for Lombardo to see, to give him another perspective on the still-developing work.

Ruggiero, 48, also has been doing productions at regional theaters, including "Ella," the musical biography about Ella Fitzgerald that has played stages across the country. He also made his off-Broadway bow with "Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn" in 2007 — the year his career and life nearly ended after a cancerous tumor was discovered wrapped around his spine. An emergency operation and extensive treatment followed, and he is now cancer-free.

Ruggiero read "Looped" and found it funny. But he also had reservations about it. He and Lombardo, who previously had never met, agreed to have breakfast at the Hartford Hilton.

"I talked very openly and honestly, and I thought that was the end of it," says Ruggiero.

"I was always a fan of Rob's work and find a great honesty in his work," Lombardo says. "After that meeting, I thought, 'This is the guy who should direct my play' because he didn't throw any punches. He told me what worked, what didn't."

"Two months later," says Ruggiero, "Matthew called and said, 'Do you want to do it in Pasadena?'"

Ruggiero has had a strong connection to Harper, having directed her in "The Dragon and the Pearl," a solo show about author Pearl Buck that premiered at TheaterWorks in 1997. (The show played off-Broadway under the title "All Under Heaven.")

"Looped" premiered at the Pasadena Playhouse in June 2008 and attracted large audiences and largely favorable reviews, especially for its star. There was commercial interest, but the two men felt more development was needed, and the show moved on to other engagements at the Cuillo Center for the Arts in West Palm Beach, Fla., and the Arena Stage in Washington.

But despite the play's success in Washington, its path to Broadway was not so simple.

"It was clear then we needed experienced producers to take us into New York," says Lombardo, "so I took things into my own hands and contacted [commercial producers] Leonard Soloway and Chase Mishkin to see if they were interested. They said yes."

Because of their influence in New York, says Lombardo, "Looped" was able to secure a theater in a season with many new productions competing for a Broadway venue.

"Matthew is a very talented playwright," says Ruggiero, "but what people might not know is he is very good at getting what he wants. He has such determination and passion, and he has actually given me more confidence and strength in that area."

When did they officially celebrate going to Broadway?

"After that lunch with Leonard and Chase, and they gave me their commitment," says Lombardo.

"I was a lot more cautious," says Ruggiero, "because I had been down that road before with a show that was supposed to go to Broadway but didn't. I felt more secure when they announced the theater and the dates. That's when I told my family. But it wasn't until I signed the contract that I really breathed easier. When the show starts preview performances this week, that's when I'll do my happy dance."

The cachet of being a Broadway playwright also has real professional benefits, says Lombardo.

"It certainly gets our projects moving a little faster and being taken a little more seriously than 'Here's this regional theater writer and director,'" says Lombardo, whose next play is "High," with Kathleen Turner as a recovering alcoholic nun who deals with a 19-year-old heroin addict. The play, which has commercial attachments, is likely to be presented at several regional theaters, with an eye to New York.

The Lyceum Theatre will be filled with Lombardo and Ruggiero family members when the show opens next Sunday, followed by a party at Sardi's, the landmark Broadway restaurant.

"We both have very Italian families," says Ruggiero, "and I'm spacing mine out, but Mr. Lombardo is having three generations coming all at once. My entire family is insane right now. My mother is one of 14 children, so the entire clan is coming in for the whole weekend."

"Are you going to eat that strawberry?" says Ruggiero eyeing a lone piece of fruit on Lombardo's otherwise empty plate. "See? This is what we've come down to."

"We've evolved into one person," says Lombardo.

"But we're not lovers," says Ruggiero

"I made a commitment that I wouldn't get involved with anyone until the play opened," says Lombardo. "Now I'm making another commitment not to become involved with anyone until 'High' opens on Broadway.

"I, on the other hand," says Ruggiero, "will be happy to take e-mails."

•LOOPED is in previews at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St., New York. The play opens next Sunday. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $25 to $111.50. (There is no matinee March 14.) Information: 212-947-8844, 212-239-6200, www.telecharge.com or www.loopedonbroadway.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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