Apr 26, 2013
The curtain rises on the delicious one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, and there she is. Both of her: First Bette Midler, the divine Miss M herself, greeted with a roar of anticipatory pleasure by an audience that rightly assumes they’re in for a party; and then, instantaneously, Sue Mengers herself, the sui generis Hollywood talent agent for whom ”divine” hardly describes her style. Mengers, who died in 2011 (somewhere between the ages of late 70s and early 80s — she’d never tell) was, like Midler, a helluva broad.
But Mengers’ style was, famously, her own, a combo of foul-mouthed love of gossip, naked ambition, pitbull devotion to and negotiation for her clients, and sybaritic physical inactivity. At her peak as Hollywood’s most powerful female agent, those clients included Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Faye Dunaway, Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw, Mike Nichols, and — the star she spotted first — Barbra Streisand. Mengers’ plate-on-knees living room dinner parties were legendary. (Only the most glittering made the cut.) Those who knew her picture her lounging in a flowing caftan, with a joint or a cigarette in hand, sometimes both, and a telephone nearby.
That’s the Sue Mengers who holds forth in I’ll Eat You Last, a bonbon of a play by John Logan (author of Red, plus strong screenplays including Skyfall, Hugo, and Gladiator). Like costume designer Ann Roth’s silky, sequined, pool-blue caftan, the play flows gracefully, flitting from ribaldry to Hollywood wisdom, then over to fabulously naughty stories, then around back to a kind of tender, tickled admiration for the lady in the living room.
Midler only leaves the sumptuous peach Ultrasuede couch — the centerpiece of Scott Pask’s perfectly Mengersian set, lit with sophistication by Hugh Vanstone — when the dishy 90-minute show is over. (A perfectly placed bit of audience interaction spices up the goings-on.) Yet even before she speaks, Midler owns the place with one flip of her frosted coif. With dynamic direction from Joe Mantello, the star makes lounging and smoking look both lazy and athletic — the very opposite approach to monologue from Fiona Shaw’s showy exertions in The Testament of Mary. Which is fine because, kiddies, Mengers has much to say and all the time in the world to say it.
It’s 1981. Her power is dwindling, her clients are leaving her — even Barbra. And in a drowsy afternoon before one of those fabled dinner parties, while Mengers waits in the melancholy fantasy that La Streisand will phone to apologize, she tells some tales. Such tales! (How she got a relatively unknown Gene Hackman the role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection is one pip of a true story.) Speaking in the exaggerated B-movie tones that Mengers explained she learned in order to lose her accent as an 8-year-old émigré from Germany, Midler manages a fabulous feat: She marshals all her own famously divine Bette-ness to bring to life a kindred spirit. There’s real heaven in this profanity. A