By: David Sheward
Bette Midler is one of the few performers in the modern world who can hold an audience without moving from a sitting position for 80 minutes. In this one-woman play, her return to Broadway after more than 30 years, that’s exactly what she does. And the character is a perfect fit: Sue Mengers, loud, unstoppable superagent to the stars who shot to the top of the Hollywood hierarchy in the 1970s. Mengers’s ballsy, steamroller personality matches Midler’s Divine Miss M, the performer’s public persona we all fondly remember from her blockbuster concerts. Both are foulmouthed, unpretentious, and endowed with perfect comic timing. At the performance attended, the audience howled at her every line (except for the old lady sitting behind me who loudly declared, "Disgusting," after Midler as Mengers called Barbra Streisand the "c" word).
John Logan’s anecdote-laced script places the performer on a gorgeous sofa squarely in the middle of Scott Pask’s opulent Beverly Hills set. It’s hours before the high-powered guests arrive for yet another fabulous soiree, so Mengers kills time by telling the audience the story of her life. Through the magic of theater, we’ve managed to fit into her living room. One lucky patron is even invited onstage to play butler and bring the reclining star cigarettes and alcohol from a nearby breakfront. Midler sharply charts Mengers’s incredible journey from refugee from Hitler’s Germany to receptionist at William Morris to representative of such megastars as Gene Hackman, Ali MacGraw, Michael Caine, and Faye Dunaway.
Along the way, we learn Mengers’s rules for success as an agent. Among the precepts are "Know the Spouse," which she illustrates with the cautionary tale of Steve McQueen ruining the career of his wife MacGraw. "What happened to Ali MacGraw’s career?" quips Mengers. "I’ll tell you in four words: that c-t Steve McQueen." The jokes and stories are juicy and rich, and Midler caresses every consonant; listening is like gobbling a boxful of expensive chocolates.
Gradually, it’s revealed we’ve caught Mengers after her peak. She is not only waiting for her party guests but also anxiously watching the telephone for a call from her biggest client, Streisand, whom Mengers expects will join the growing list of those no longer in need of her representation. In a hubristic move, she placed two of her highest-flying clients, Streisand and Hackman, in a tremendous flop directed by Mengers’s husband. The defections started soon afterwards, and Mengers was no longer on the A-list. Not long after the action of the play, she retired from the biz and in 2011 died of cancer.
Midler not only zestfully delivers Logan’s zingers but also imparts the broken woman underneath the brassy exterior. Listen as her voice catches when Mengers recalls having to tell client Julie Harris she’s considered too old to play Mary Todd Lincoln in a TV movie. It’s difficult to tell where director Joe Mantello’s contribution picks up and Midler’s leaves off. Although the actor leaves the sofa only at the play’s melancholy conclusion, it’s never static, so that’s a tribute to Mantello’s craft as much as Midler’s showmanship. They make this a sinfully delicious showbiz meal you’ll want to devour despite the high calorie count.
May 25, 2013
April 24-June 30. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45 St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $82-42. (800) 447-7400. www.telecharge.com
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