I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers: Theater Review
Back on Broadway after 33 years' absence, Bette Midler slips into the caftan of 1970s Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers to dish in John Logan's single-character portrait.
NEW YORK -- The mother of all Hollywood superagents, Sue Mengers let it be known she was displeased at being crassly parodied by Shelley Winters in a giant muumuu in the 1981 Blake Edwards comedy S.O.B. But as famously abrasive as she could be, it’s impossible to believe the late Mengers wouldn’t have puckered up for John Logan’s big wet kiss, I’ll Eat You Last. It’s equally hard to imagine her not being tickled by the eternally fabulous Bette Midler’s portrayal of her – a fusion of one self-made, larger-than-life persona with another in which the dividing lines all but vanish.
Subtitled A Chat With Sue Mengers, the single-character piece is exactly what it advertises – 80 irresistible minutes of primo tinseltown dish from a certified master chef. A smorgasbord of quotable one-liners and delicious anecdotes, it even comes with an official warning sticker slapped on the show curtain: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip.”
On the surface, it might seem a modest doodle from Logan. His two-hander about Mark Rothko, Red, swept the Tony Awards in 2010, and his screenplays have collected Oscar nominations (Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo), not to mention reinvigorating the 007 franchise (Skyfall). But the art required in shaping a theatrical monologue can be just as challenging if not more so than many multi-character works. Not only do Logan, ace director Joe Mantello and the incomparable Midler inject tender notes of ruefulness into this breezily finessed gab-a-thon, the play also provides an elegiac commentary on the shift from artist-driven to corporatized Hollywood.
Outfitted in Mengers’ signature frosted flip, tinted specs and a sky blue caftan with silver trim whipped up by Ann Roth, Midler holds court from a plush salmon sofa at the center of designer Scott Pask’s sumptuous riff on Beverly Hills casual opulence. “I’m not getting up,” she says at the start of the play, and she doesn’t. “Think of me as that caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland; the one with the hash pipe.” Cocktail in one hand, cigarette or joint in the other, Sue directly addresses the audience, reminding us that we are privileged to gain access to a home where usually only above-the-line talent gets past the threshold. Her “twinklies,” she calls the star casts of her legendary dinner parties.
The year of this 1981 afternoon salon is as significant as the title of the Barbra Streisand track that plays us in and out of the scene: “Stoney End.” Having reigned over New Hollywood since the late-‘60s, Mengers’ domain was on the decline by then as a trail of major clients defected, many of them to ascending powerhouse CAA.
“For you civilians out there,” Sue explains with an eye-roll midway through the play, “CAA is Creative Artists Agency, the fastest rising of the so-called New Wave agencies; the shape of things to come we are all breathlessly promised. They’ve built the agency on a puritanical screed of monkish sublimation of the individual to the corporate entity, to quote their mentor, Stalin ... Oh did I say Stalin? I meant Mike Ovitz.”
Logan, who met Mengers three years before her death in 2011, deftly co-opts her as a marker of the transition from the renegade ‘70s to studio filmmaking by committee. In her heyday, an impassioned agent with some creative vision and long-range career foresight could block William Friedkin’s driveway until he agreed at least to consider a pre-stardom Gene Hackman for The French Connection. Or engage in a bluffing contest with producer Robert Evans to get Faye Dunaway into Chinatown over Jane Fonda. (Two of many episodes hilariously recounted here.) But by 1981, those days were fading fast.
Recalling her first meeting with Ovitz, Sue confesses that her head was spinning from the foreign-language talk of “turnaround negative cost pickups” and “merchandizing synergy against backend residual options on a sliding scale of first dollar gross.” Finally, she interrupted him: “But, Mike, honey, do you actually like movies?”
That illuminating exchange is key to Logan’s portrait of what made Mengers such a galvanizing force, particularly during her years at Creative Management Associates, the precursor to ICM. Her client roster at various times included Candice Bergen, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Michael Caine, Bob Fosse, Mike Nichols, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds and Sidney Lumet to name a handful.
Couching – pardon the pun – her self-assessment in the twilight of her era might seem a cue to get maudlin. But both the character as written and the actress playing her are such dynamic forces of nature that the glimmers of poignancy float like feathers among the ricocheting barbs. The play takes its name from the favorite book Sue never wrote, subtitled “A Cannibal Love Story.” And she readily acknowledges that the predatory adapt-or-die rules are a fundamental part of her chosen jungle.
However, being dumped on this particular afternoon by her friend and longtime client Barbra, or rather, Barbra’s lawyers – “her microstate of serious Jews who joined arms and bottle-danced their way to the speaker-phone” – has clearly stung worse than other losses. “She of the nails and the voice and the perm, which we will not discuss” is the reason Sue keeps her clunky rotary telephone handy, waiting for a peacemaking call.
That waiting game makes her inclined to reflect on past and present, and Logan has done a magical job of transforming biographical data into sparkling liquid conversation.
Sue recaps her Jewish family’s flight from Nazi Germany, and her early years in Utica, New York, where she taught herself English at the local fleapit movie house. (“That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead.”) Her account of finding the courage to cross the playground and introduce herself to the most popular, prettiest girl in school establishes a recurring motif of self-belief. Securing a job as a receptionist at the William Morris Agency, she used that foot in the door to schmooze her way to an agenting career. “You want to be a thing? Make yourself that thing.”
The play is punctuated by Sue’s Five Golden Rules of being a great agent, each point succinctly illustrated with a choice recollection or two. The mix of humor, bile and quiet heartbreak in her account of watching as Ali MacGraw discarded her cresting fame for domestic enslavement to Steve McQueen makes it not just a juicy episode. It’s a statement of Mengers’ personal investment in her work.
But this is not hagiography. Logan is not out to paint her as a martyr to a tainted art – especially one that was never pure to begin with. And the play doesn’t fail to acknowledge Mengers’ hubris, outlining her fatal career mistake of maneuvering Streisand and Hackman into doing All Night Long, a stinker directed by her Belgian husband, Jean-Claude Tramont. But affection and respect for the subject make this an unexpectedly rich tribute in which every name-dropping story spun has a precise narrative function.
The care and attention to nuance with which Logan and Mantello sculpt the non-stop flow of talk is mirrored in the afternoon-through-early evening evolution of Hugh Vanstone’s lighting. An especially lovely touch is the ripples reflected across the ceiling from the unused pool. Sue says she knows it’s out there but she’s not sure where.
Midler’s consummate ability to deliver brassy chutzpah, fierceness and silky comic seduction at the same time is harnessed to perfection, allowing just a judicious whisper of vulnerability. Infusing her performance with equal parts Sue and Bette, plus a dash of her old Sophie Tucker routines, she makes this role her bitch.
Venue: Booth Theatre, New York (runs through June 30)
Cast: Bette Midler
Director: Joe Mantello
Playwright: John Logan
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Fitz Patton
Presented by Graydon Carter, Arielle Tepper Madover, James L. Nederlander, The Shubert Organization, Terry Allen Kramer, Stephanie P. McClelland, Jeffrey Finn, Ruth Hendel, Larry Magid, Jon B. Platt, Scott & Brian Zeilinger