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I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers
By Elyse Sommer
I'm not a solo play enthusiast, less so than ever in a season when this genre seems to be proliferating on as well as Off-Broadway to the point of being out of bounds. However, I've always loved Bette Midler so I was ready for I'll Eat You Last, A Chat with Sue Mengers to be one of those exceptions that wouldn't make me wish for at least one other actor on stage. After all, Midler is a commanding, always fun diva and the play she's in is set in America's glamour and glitz capital, the seedbed for many a memorable story.
The prospect of "The Divine" as the soloist for a script written by John Logan, a playwright whose work I've admired for fifteen years, sent me to the Booth Theater optimistic that Midler's magnetism and Logan's writing would win the day, one of numerous cases that have turned my ho-hum feelings about solo plays on their head. I Am My Own Wife , actually won the Pulitzer as well as Tony in 2004.
I wish I could continue the above with a rousing hurrah and tell you that Logan has written a substantial play worthy of Midler. As promised by that printed caveat on the canvas curtain, I'll Eat You Last does deliver plenty of profanity smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip. And the gossip comes spiced with plenty of laughs, but the humor is often more tasteless than funny. Even the much loved and lovable Miss M. can't make the character Mr. Logan has written for her as interesting as the actress playing her.
The Miss M channeled by Midler is Sue Mengers, the first female Hollywood super agent who died in 2011. Mengers was known for her breakthrough Hollywood career. Her star-studded client list at one time included everyone who was anyone. But while she certainly had an interesting life, was noted for her wit and could insist that to be her dinner guest you had to be famous, her fame relies on riding the coattails of her famous clients. She's never going to be a household word shades of Barbra Streissand (who is incidentally a character in what's probably this season's most originally conceived and vividly performed one-person play, Buyer & Cellar ).
It's understandable why Logan, who's written for both stage and screen, saw Sue Mengers as a potential character. He's always written about real people who were famous for various reasons. His terrific Never the Sinner, was about the teen aged thrill killers Leopold and Loeb. His most successful play, Red , was about the painter Mark Rothko. In Peter and Alice which recently opened in London, Logan created a fictional meeting between two real people from litrary history — Alice Lidell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Peter Llewelyn Davies, one of five brothers for whom JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan.
Though only Never the Sinner featured a sizeable cast, Logan's later and leaner plays have had just two actors to interact with each other. Until now, that is.
Ms. Midler holds court all by herself — unless, of course, you're willing to count several appearance by a man planted in the front row and designated as the "Unlucky Audience Member" to respond from a wink from the star to come up and fix her a drink. The audience at the matinee performance I attended laughed dutifully and loud at this rather lame an overly familiar bit of business. However, it seemed to serve no purpose except to allow Ms. Midler to stay true to the first remark she, or rather she as Sue Megners, makes to the audience:"I'm not getting up ... It's my house, you get up. I don't."
The plot, if you can so define this "chat," consists of Midler-cum-Mengers sharing her journey at age eight from Hitler's Germany, to Utica, New York, the Bronx, and, finally Hollywood. The time is 1981 and she's in what she calls Chez Sue, meaning her elegant Beverly Hills home.
No, this isn't one of those monologues with the actor, a couple of chairs and perhaps a few scarves and hats. We're to be the kids with their noses pressed against the windowpane of the gasp-inducing pink and beige set Scott Pask has created. Midler, in a blonde and filmy turquise number by Ann Roth looks gorgeous. If you've seen pictures of Mengers the resemblance is there, but that twinkle in the eyes is pure Midler.
As we wait for "Jack and Angelica" to come by "and Elton John of course," Mengers regales us with gossip about celebrities like Julie Harris (her first client), Steve McQueen (who says you can't speak poorly of the dead?) and Ali McGraw. She also details how she forged her way into their world and remade hers to fit the American dream of money and fame.
The curtain raising background music is “Stoney End” by Barbra Streisand — an apt touch by director Joe Mantello since Streisand was the most treasured jewel in Sue Mengers' crown, so that her eventual departure turns Mengers' story from tragedy into something of a tragedy.
The problem with I'll Eat You Last is two-fold. Logan's portrait of this hard driving woman turns poignant too late. And, unless you are gung ho to find out the rules for becoming a Hollywood power agent ("We're all headhunters in my business. Every star's a potential client and if I don't steal them, someone else will. And let's face it, if no one wants to steal your clients you're doing something wrong."), this 90-minute advice and celebrity gossip session is likely to be only mildly entertaining.
All this is not to say that Sue Mengers did not represent an interesting and, as she sees it, "a more fun" period in Hollywood history. But perhaps I'll Eat You Last would have been tastier and more fun if Bette Midler just plopped herself on that couch and talked about herself and occasionally got up to perhaps sing "The Rose" and "Wind Beneath My Wings" .