Apr 24, 2013
The first line in I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers ( three 1/2 out of four), the new John Logan play that opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, is, “I’m not getting up.”
It’s uttered by the sole performer, who pretty much keeps her word, only rising from the plush sofa at the center of Scott Pask’s set in the final minutes. Until then, her most rigorous physical activity is to primp her hair and chain-smoke herbal cigarettes.
Sound like a pretty static evening? Hardly — given that the performer is Bette Midler, and her character is one of Hollywood’s most legendary, and legendarily outre, agents. During her career, which peaked in the ’70s, Mengers (who died in 2011) represented such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, and threw parties where only the famous and fabulous were welcome.
By 1981, when the play is set, Mengers’ own star is fading, along with those of some clients, a number of whom have already dismissed her. But as Logan presents her, hours before yet another celeb-laden soiree, she is not, on the surface, morose about the situation. Briskly witty, deeply dishy, delightfully profane and at times surprisingly poignant, I’ll Eat You Last captures a woman with no regrets — at least none that she’ll tell you about.
Under Joe Mantello’s pitch-perfect direction, Midler dives into the role with predictable relish — which is not to say that she chews the scenery. However brassy her persona, Mengers clearly valued taste and discretion, as Pask’s spacious, elegant scenic reminds us. Holding court over an audience whose members, as she repeatedly informs us, aren’t nearly distinguished enough to warrant an invitation to her house, the actress brings an element of wry detachment to even some more personal observations.
After escaping Hitler’s Germany with her family, Mengers learned to speak English by watching movies. “That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead,” she quips — though that studio surely wouldn’t have accommodated the potty mouth that colors some of her funniest reminiscences, involving previously mentioned names and many others. (Steve McQueen and Mike Ovitz get particularly poor reviews.)
Midler breaks her character’s rule against little people twice, recruiting an audience member to bring her a (fake) joint and, later, refill her drink. “Don’t be a stranger,” she trilled to her appointed servant at a recent preview, after kicking him offstage.
But I’ll Eat You Last can also be reflective and touching, as Mengers recalls obstacles and losses, and laments a movie business that is becoming less and less entertaining. Midler reminds us what a strong dramatic actress she can be, whether evoking Mengers’ challenges or showing us the moxie that got her through them.
“In this life, kiddies, there’s always a window,” she says — a sensible philosophy, regardless of your level of ambition or stature.