I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers
By: Patrick Christiano
Bette Midler has returned to Broadway in her first non singing role as the legendary gossip loving "superagent" Sue Mengers, a part that suits the star’s brassy yet warm, larger than life persona to a T. The vehicle for Midler’s return after a 40 year absence is Tony Award winning (Red)playwright John Logan’s affectionate new comedy, "I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers," helmed by director Joe Mantello as an intimate 75 minute entertaining evening of campy gossip with the former William Morris agent rehashing her heyday in 1970’s Hollywood.
Set in 1981 in the living room of Mengers’ Beverly Hills hacienda, a handsomely designed light and airy set by Scott Pask, Midler holds court never moving from the sofa, clad in a flowing blue caftan, smoking pot and name dropping. The former owner was Zsa Zsa Gabor and Sue is waiting for the call from Barbra Steisand that will end the relationship that launched Mengers’ fantastic career.
At her peak Menger’s client list included not only Streisand, but also Gene Hackman, Julie Harris, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine, Ali McGraw, and Burt Reynolds. As Mengers Bette regales us with detailed stories about the ups and downs of dealing with these uniquely gifted talents, the glory and the defeat. We also hear of her rise from a "fat little German Jew" living in the Bronx to La-La Land’s most famous woman agent and renowned Hollywood hostess.
When she made her first appearance on stage, Midler was met with a thunderous ovation that lasted for what seemed like several minutes before she could even speak her first lines. She tells us right from the start, "That’s what we do here; we dish." She is waiting for Barbra’s call and is not moving from the sofa, a herculean task for any actor and an ufortunate directorial error. Midler is stuck to the sofa, but the choice leaves her no room for a grand release. I would like to see her burst off the sofa at least three times, recover and then return. Otherwise the evening becoumes static, and we feel Midler pushing because she is confinded to one place, which contains her enthusiasm from erupting into what could be hysterically funny moments.
Midler, however, is a confident winning performer and Mengers’ persona fits right into her comfort zone allowing the star to toss off zingers like darts at a dartboard, hitting the mark with her incredible timing. However after about 12 minutes, you begin to tire of what sounds like concert patter and start waiting for the jokes. As funny as she is Midler never becomes fully invested in the specifics of the character’s inner life, and the performance although winning has a very general quality. Midler keeps the laughs coming, and she almost becomes the character regaling us with her Ali MCaw and Steve McQueen tale, but when she gets to the end she pushes too hard instead of letting the ironies and the dichotomies of Mengers’ emotional life guide her.
Leaving the theater her fans were more than happy and didn’t quite know the difference, because she is such a winning personality. Bette Midler is "The Divine Miss M," one of the world’s most renowned talents of her generation in a career that has spanned 40 years. Her show is running for a strictly limited engagement of 89 performances, not nearly enough to accommodate her legion of admirers. Also, be advised there is no late seating at Ms. Mengers’ soirée and if you leave during the performance, you may not return.
The creative team includes three-time Tony Award winner Scott Pask (scenic design), Academy Award winner Ann Roth (costume design), three-time Tony nominee Hugh Vanstone (lighting design), and Drama Desk Award winner Fitz Patton (sound design).
I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS is now playing at the Booth Theatre 222 West 45th Street, between Broadway and Eight Avenue. To obtain tickets call 212-239-6200, Telecharge.com or at the Booth Theatre Box Office. Photo: Richard Termine
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