Appearing on Broadway for the first time in 30 years, Bette Midler doesn't stand up to greet her audience. She chooses to remain reclined.
"I'm not getting up," she says by way of warning. "It's my house, you get up. Only don't. I just had the carpet cleaned."
You mustn't take any offense. Midler is playing the wondrously snooty super talent agent Sue Mengers in a one-woman show that opened Wednesday at the Booth Theatre.
Even if you have no idea who Mengers is, an evening with Midler is always special and her apparent joy in playing this role makes it even more so. In "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers," Midler swears a blue streak, makes vicious fun of Hollywood and never has to stand up.
Set in 1981 and written by John Logan, the work is a straightforward biography of the rise of a chubby Jewish girl with a heavy German accent who grew up in New York and turned herself into a mover and shaker in Hollywood.
Her clients included Candice Bergen, Mike Nichols, Michael Caine, George Segal, Dyan Cannon, Bob Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Ryan O'Neal, Rod Steiger, Peter Bogdanovich and Gore Vidal, among others. (She likes to call all A-listers "Twinklies.")
As she freely admits, Mengers, who died in 2011, landed clients by threats, deception, cajoling, promises, guilt and doggedness – anything, really.
"We're all headhunters in my business. Every star's a potential client and if I don't steal them, someone else will," she says. "I was persuasive, I was funny. Most of all, I was ferocious. To me `no' always meant `maybe.'"
Over 85 minutes, Midler – rarely letting a manicured foot hit her carpet – lies on her elegant couch – speaks to the audience, gossiping furiously as she waits for a call from Barbra Streisand.
Joe Mantello directs with something of a challenge: A seasoned pro in Midler and yet a character who doesn't really move off the couch. So he expertly paces the whole thing like an audience with a blousy, foul-mouthed queen.
Midler wears oversized, tinted glasses and constantly scrapes at her silky straight bob, colored a heavenly hue only the rich can get away with. She's wearing an aqua caftan with sparkly embellishments and alternates smoking a cigarette and a joint, sometimes having both lit at the same time.
This warning appears on the curtain as the audience files in: "This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip." Here's another warning: Know who Michael Ovitz is.
Logan and Midler have tried to re-create the essence of Mengers and that means a familiarity with distant celebs like James Coco and agents like Ovitz is mandatory. Gossip isn't gossip unless you know the players, darling.
Logan, a Tony winner for "Red," has woven his monologue well and the transitions are seamless. Stories about Ali MacGraw and Gene Hackman take up larger sections, with the obligatory detour into Mengers' childhood tucked in.
The script works best when Midler is lecturing us about how the business of show really works, particularly her "Five Golden Rules," including Never Blow a Deal on Money.
And one of the best bits is not even in the script – Midler picks out a gentleman from the crowd during each show to fetch her a silver box with pot, and later picks on him again to carry a decanter of high-priced booze to her. Each time, he must take off his shoes. ("I'd ask you to join me, but that might encourage an unhealthy familiarity," she tells him.)
Not having ever been invited to Mengers' home – and for good reason since, she says flatly, "all my guests have to be famous" – we'll take Scott Pask's luscious Beverly Hills set, complete with enclosed palm trees, recessed lighting and the reflected light from a swimming pool. ("It's out there somewhere," Midler says dismissively.)
There are some overlaps between "I'll Eat You Last" and "Lucky Guy," the stage biography of journalist Mike McAlary, starring Tom Hanks. Both require some knowledge of the world they are showing and both look sadly on a lost time that was more freewheeling and fun.
"I guess that's what's changed about Hollywood most. We used to laugh more. Honey, we used to have fun," Midler says. "Trust me, you'll miss me when I'm gone."
Bette Midler didn’t become the Divine Miss M by idling. She strutted, boogie-woogied and gunned it — at times on wheels in mermaid drag.
Midler does none of that playing the late-’70s Hollywood talent agent Sue Mengers in the funny but vaporously thin solo show, “I’ll Eat You Last.”
For 85 minutes, the caftan-clad Midler, back on Broadway after 30-plus years, remains rooted to a salmon-colored sofa. It’s central in Scott Pask’s rendering of Mengers’ deluxe Beverly Hills digs.
Fortunately, Midler is a riot simply sitting still and dishing the dirt. Mengers dug doing that.
Midler has Rolex-precise comic timing and, as she proved in her own bawdy revues, is fearless; she’ll say anything.
Both traits are handy to play Mengers, who was known for clever quips and a potty mouth. She was willing to take risks. That began as a girl, when, though frightened, she “crossed the playground” to befriend the most popular girl — and it worked.
Years later, Mengers pushed her way to power, thanks to her stable of then A-list clients, like Faye Dunaway and Ali MacGraw, and died at 81 in 2011.
Writer John Logan, who won a Tony for his Mark Rothko drama, “Red,” keeps Mengers glued to her couch for a reason: Entitlement. If you’re powerful (as Mengers was for a while), you can bid someone else to fetch your marijuana — which inspires a tasty bit of audience participation.
The action unfolds in 1981 a few hours before one of Mengers’ acclaimed dinner parties. Only the famous were invited.
“Honey,” says Mengers, “my own mother couldn’t get in if she were standing outside in the rain.”
Gossip is the main course at these shindigs. The title refers to cannibalism, which seems fitting for eat-or-be-eaten showbiz.
Minutes into the play, Mengers reveals that she’s just been fired by longtime client Barbra Streisand — a big loss after a number of other defections.
It’s the beginning of the end of the power trip for Mengers — a good time to rewind.
We hear snippets about: Mengers fleeing Nazi Germany as young Jewish girl with her parents; life in upstate New York, then the Bronx; secretarial jobs and hitting it big in Hollywood.
Direction by Joe Mantello consists of having Midler cross her legs, flip her hair, light a joint and then a cigarette, and repeat.
Mengers recalls adventures with her clients like Julie Harris and Gene Hackman and trying to poach Sissy Spacek from another agent by going to the actress’ farm.
“I had mud up to my #$%^,” declares Mengers.
That’s the state of the art in “I’ll Eat You Last.” It goes down like a bucket of hot-buttered popcorn, with about that much nutritional value.
But Midler is delicious and worth crossing the playground to get a ticket.
For her first Broadway appearance since “Clams on the Half Shell” 38 years ago, Bette Midler split the difference between playing it safe and taking a risk.
Instead of trotting out her hits — like her old accomplice Barry Manilow did a couple of months ago — she chose the one-woman play “I’ll Eat You Last.” But while Midler doesn’t sing a note here, she’s dressed to kill while pumping out profane one-liners. And she’s playing another Divine Miss M: Sue Mengers, the late Hollywood agent known for her bulging Rolodex, wild parties and biting wit — mud is flung tonight!
This isn’t much of a departure from the outsize stage persona Midler created for herself over the decades, but so what? “I’ll Eat You Last” is wickedly entertaining precisely because performer and material are so perfectly matched.
As Mengers, she spends the entire play plopped down on a couch, rearranging the throw pillows and lighting up joints. That she manages to hold our attention while doing it says a lot about the actress’ charisma, as well as Joe Mantello’s smooth direction.
Playwright John Logan (“Red”) takes us back to 1981, with Mengers lounging in her luxurious Beverly Hills home — Scott Pask’s set makes it look like a SoCal version of Neronian decadence.
She’s just been informed by her biggest client’s lawyers that she’s been dumped. Now she’s waiting for a phone call from the star herself — Barbra Streisand.
To kill time, Mengers fills us in on her life, from her fleeing the Nazis at age 8 to her apprenticeship at William Morris and all the way to her conquest of Hollywood. She loved the movies but quickly figured out she belonged behind the scenes: “Why be a king when you can be a kingmaker?” No wonder she became one of the first so-called superagents.
Here we meet her as her influence is waning in a changing Tinseltown. This brassy, outspoken broad doesn’t fare well in the new world of “pseudo-Ivy-League-whiz-kid-boy-agents-slash-rentboys.”
She’s defiantly old-school Hollywood, devoted to stars and crazy parties fueled by pot and bitchy gossip — “the lube by which this town slips it in.”
Logan — who met Mengers in 2008, three years before her death — sticks to a conventional template, but fills it with killer quips and hysterical set pieces. Midler may not warble, but Mengers’ brazen bluff on behalf of Faye Dunaway and her visit to Sissy Spacek’s farm “in a mythical land called Virginia” belong on her Greatest Hits list.
The star is in total control throughout, multiplying each “S” into a slithering hiss (“Julie Harrissssss”) and duplicating the overdramatic staccato Mengers adopted after learning English from Warner Bros. flicks.
Midler’s said to be insecure about her acting, but she has nothing to be anxious about. Let’s hope this show is just the first step in her reconquest of the New York stage.
Chances are you are not a movie star. Chances are equally good that this state of affairs is not likely to change soon. But if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to explore that golden realm where the gods and goddesses of the screen dwell, race over to the Booth Theater, where you can enjoy an audience with a woman who consorted almost exclusively with box office luminaries, or “twinklies” as she affectionately calls them.
In “I’ll Eat You Last,” a delectable soufflé of a solo show by John Logan that opened Wednesday night on Broadway, Bette Midler portrays the Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, who at the height of her reign in the 1970s could make a career merely by issuing an invitation to one of her A-list-only dinner parties. For a limited time, the tightly closed doors of the Beverly Hills aerie in which Mengers held court are being thrown open, and for the price of a ticket we all get to feel a little twinkly for a night.
It’s a heady sensation, thanks to the buoyant, witty writing of Mr. Logan (“Red”), the focused direction of Joe Mantello and above all to Ms. Midler, who gives the most lusciously entertaining performance of the Broadway season. Dropping names as if to the rhythm of a disco beat, snapping out wisecracks like acid-tipped darts that find the sweet spot every time, proffering profanity-laden advice about how to get ahead in show business: as the frank, brassy, foul-mouthed Mengers, who died in 2011, Ms. Midler cradles a spellbound audience in the palm of her hand from first joke to last toke. (Mengers’s love of celebrity was perhaps equaled only by her affection for marijuana.)
Or rather she would so cradle us, if both hands were not otherwise engaged. As she welcomes us, Sue does not deign to rise from the pillow-bestrewn couch on which she sits, or rather slinks (“Forgive me for not getting up,” she says, unapologetically. “Think of me as that caterpillar from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the one with the hash pipe”), but her silver-taloned fingers are in continual motion: slicing the air to accentuate a point, fiddling with the white-blond tresses framing her face, adjusting her signature glasses — oversize circles that symbolize a lifelong obsession with stargazing — or grabbing another cigarette or a joint, if not both at the same time.
We have been invited into Sue’s private domain to provide a distraction from a dark cloud that has appeared on a formerly cloudless horizon, regarding matters both social and business — which for this woman are one and the same. (The year is 1981, as the décor by the designer Scott Pask tastefully whispers.) Sue is regaling us with tales from her well-stocked larder of Hollywood lore while she awaits a phone call from her great friend Barbra Streisand, who was also the biggest jewel in the crown of her client list — until just a few moments ago. The story of the Streisand defection will be told, but not until Sue has dished up great mountains of glittery Hollywood dirt. We learn how Sue finagled the female lead in “Chinatown” for Faye Dunaway. How Steve McQueen stole Ali MacGraw from the Paramount honcho Bob Evans, turning her into a high-class hausfrau and torpedoing her career. (Not a great loss to cinema history, perhaps, but as a fiercely loyal agent and friend, Sue resented it immensely.)
When the phone rings and it’s Sissy Spacek calling, we learn how a good agent engages in the delicate art of client-poaching in the guise of offering maternal advice. “Let’s face it,” she says, acknowledging the ruthlessness that rules in Hollywood, “if no one’s trying to steal your clients, you’re doing something wrong.”
And of course we are treated to the boilerplate life summary that’s de rigueur in bio-plays: How a young immigrant from Germany, burning with the shame of “always feeling outside looking in,” escaped into the movies, became obsessed (“That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead”), quickly abandoned acting ambitions for a role behind the scenes, and climbed the Hollywood agenting ladder rung by rung until she became one of the first women to reach the top in a male-dominated world.
Tangy and funny as much of Mr. Logan’s writing is, the play would hardly transmit the contact high it does without the presence of Ms. Midler. As a performer she shares certain qualities associated with her subject: an ability to make the crassest vulgarities sound like crystalline repartee, an earthy glamour and a preening, kittenish imperiousness that’s somehow warmly endearing. It is hard to imagine any other actor imbuing the character with the same seductive effervescence — or giving a feeling of perpetual motion to a 90-minute monologue without even standing up. (Dressed in a shapely blue tent adorned with silvery spangles designed by Ann Roth, Ms. Midler looks smashing enough to single-handedly revive the muumuu.)
We learn early that Sue has little interest in politics or the wider world of culture (she acidly describes Vanessa Redgrave “downing glass after glass of my best Veuve Clicquot like a good socialist”), and Mr. Logan does not force-feed us pathos involving the diminution of her power in Hollywood. In one of the play’s few darker passages Sue laments the rise of the bottom-line-oriented, more technocratic agencies like Creative Artists Agency. The aesthetic ferment of Hollywood during the 1970s may have been due in part to the Mengers style of mixing pleasure and business, but it could be argued, too, that the inflation of star salaries that she stoked helped usher in the Hollywood of the 1980s and beyond. In any case, the exuberantly shallow Sue we meet in “I’ll Eat You Last” would bridle at any attempt to analyze her legacy. “I’ve seen the future, and, kids, it’s not a lot of laughs,” she says at one point, and that’s about as close as she comes to making grand statements on the changing Hollywood culture.
As the shadows of evening begin to gather, and she begins to slouch deeper into the pillows, as if seeking to become one with her couch, Ms. Midler subtly conveys that Sue has begun to feel the soft sting of her feisty heedlessness beginning to bite back. As she dismisses us to prepare for her dinner — minus a star who called to cancel at the last minute, ominously — we sense that her need for the sweet release of a joint (or two or three) is perhaps more urgent than usual because she can see the credits beginning to roll on her glory years. Sue has learned that if you seek out the pleasures of living in intimate proximity to the hot glare of movie fame, eventually you’re going to get burned.
How much fun is it to have Bette Midler curled up barefoot on a sofa on a Broadway stage, chatting at us for 90 minutes in a periwinkle blue caftan with silver sparkles to match her long fingernails?
So much fun that, even when the script doesn't scintillate as much as it intends to, a happy contentment seems to permeate the theater.
But first, we clarify. Midler is not here as her own branded divine self. In a platinum flip and enormous glasses, she is playing a different oversized personality and Hollywood power divinity, Sue Mengers, Hollywood's first woman superagent, who died at 79 in 2011.
In John Logan's solo play, "I'll Eat You Last," Midler takes on her first Broadway role since she was a 1967 replacement Tzeitel in "Fiddler on the Roof."
For a while, she seems almost as much Bette as Mengers. Before long, however, we stop expecting her to launch into one of her clam-on-a-half-shell extravaganzas and imagine we are there with Mengers for a fateful day in 1981 in what she calls "my modest little hacienda in the hills of Beverly."
At least she calls it that in this fact-based fiction written by Logan, Tony-winning playwright of ""Red" and screenwriter of "Skyfall," and based on recollections by Mengers' friends. She also gossips about lots of her heavyweight '60s and '70s clients, many of whom have abandoned her by the time she is talking bawdy to us. She tries not to focus on the call expected to confirm that Barbra Streisand, her longtime client and friend, is firing her.
The phone, with its curly cord, is not the only thing old about the scene. Although we're interested in Mengers' rise from isolated German émigré to kingmaker, gossip about Ali MacGraw, Steve McQueen and Gene Hackman feels as ancient as her joke about '60s mass murderer Richard Speck.
On the other hand, there is Midler's Mengers, waiting to host a party with a joint in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Terrific director Joe Mantello frames her in a peach mansion where shadows of the pool she never uses appear on the ceiling. She misses old Hollywood, where "we used to laugh more." Midler makes us miss it, too.
The first line in I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers (* * * 1/2 out of four stars), the new John Logan play that opened Wednesday at Broadway's Booth Theatre, is, "I'm not getting up."
It's uttered by the sole performer, who pretty much keeps her word, only rising from the plush sofa at the center of Scott Pask's set in the final minutes. Until then, her most rigorous physical activity is to primp her hair and chain-smoke herbal cigarettes.
Sound like a pretty static evening? Hardly -- given that the performer is Bette Midler, and her character is one of Hollywood's most legendary, and legendarily outre, agents. During her career, which peaked in the '70s, Mengers (who died in 2011) represented such luminaries as Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, and threw parties where only the famous and fabulous were welcome.
By 1981, when the play is set, Mengers' own star is fading, along with those of some clients, a number of whom have already dismissed her. But as Logan presents her, hours before yet another celeb-laden soiree, she is not, on the surface, morose about the situation. Briskly witty, deeply dishy, delightfully profane and at times surprisingly poignant, I'll Eat You Last captures a woman with no regrets -- at least none that she'll tell you about.
Under Joe Mantello's pitch-perfect direction, Midler dives into the role with predictable relish -- which is not to say that she chews the scenery. However brassy her persona, Mengers clearly valued taste and discretion, as Pask's spacious, elegant scenic reminds us. Holding court over an audience whose members, as she repeatedly informs us, aren't nearly distinguished enough to warrant an invitation to her house, the actress brings an element of wry detachment to even some more personal observations.
After escaping Hitler's Germany with her family, Mengers learned to speak English by watching movies. "That's why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead," she quips -- though that studio surely wouldn't have accommodated the potty mouth that colors some of her funniest reminiscences, involving previously mentioned names and many others. (Steve McQueen and Mike Ovitz get particularly poor reviews.)
Midler breaks her character's rule against little people twice, recruiting an audience member to bring her a (fake) joint and, later, refill her drink. "Don't be a stranger," she trilled to her appointed servant at a recent preview, after kicking him offstage.
But I'll Eat You Last can also be reflective and touching, as Mengers recalls obstacles and losses, and laments a movie business that is becoming less and less entertaining. Midler reminds us what a strong dramatic actress she can be, whether evoking Mengers' challenges or showing us the moxie that got her through them.
"In this life, kiddies, there's always a window," she says -- a sensible philosophy, regardless of your level of ambition or stature.
Wouldn’t we all kill to be invited to a dinner party at Sue Mengers’? But, as Bette Midler puts it so plainly to the auds at her solo show, “Of course I would ask you to stay but … well … look at you.” The legendary Hollywood superagent reportedly made beaucoup enemies during her reign on earth, but scribe John Logan overlooks all that bile to pen an affectionate homage to a singular woman who loved the movie business back in the days when the movie business was still fun.
So. Bette. Is she still divine? Diviner than ever. And completely in her element, posed like a queen on the plump couch cushions of Scott Pask’s tastefully elegant set of the Mengers’ house in Beverly Hills.
She doesn’t appear to be an imposter, either. That thick mane of silver-blonde hair is Sue’s hair. The tinted glasses — hers. And if Ann Roth didn’t design that billowing aquamarine caftan for Sue, she certainly might have. But of course, it’s the attitude that completes the impersonation, that supreme self-confidence that allows her to shoot off her filthy mouth at Hollywood royalty — her good friends.
To put it more pithily: the casting of Bette Midler as Sue Mengers is genius.
The dating of the play is important. It’s 1981, when Sue is still on the game as powerhouse superagent. But not so many years off, she’ll be out of player position and watching the game from the sidelines. Having one of the smartest and quickest minds in Hollywood, she probably already knows what’s up ahead.
So Logan is already signaling that this won’t be one of Sue’s typical dinner parties. If we watch closely, there might also be portents of the fall of an empire, or at least, the changing of the palace guard. The first brick drops when she keeps eyeing the telephone and finally admits to be waiting for the Call. The call from her oldest and dearest friend, Barbra Streisand, who fired her earlier in the day.
Before the guests arrive, there will be other calls, other intimations of mortality. But for now, she’s content to sharpen her claws and dazzle us with her bountiful store of gossip, her wicked wit, her opinionated views and the story of her unorthodox life.
Some of her bon mots go for huge belly laughs. Discussing her marriage, she claims that she and her husband are a typical Hollywood couple. “On a good night we’re Nick and Nora Charles. On a bad night we’re Nick and Nora Charles Manson.” She shares the secret of her famously successful dinner parties: “Only invite movie stars.” Following her own advice, she admits, “My own mother couldn’t get in if she were standing outside in the rain.”
But here’s the real secret of those parties: “It’s all business. Everything in this town is business,” and by the time coffee is served, she’s landed one more job for one more client.
Not only is it all business, it’s all show business. (“Don’t talk to me about politics, science, sports, or animal husbandry.”) And never being up foreign politics, like Vanessa Redgrave. (“Is there anything more dreary than Cambodia? No one shoots a movie there.”)
But it’s not all fun and games and filthy stories. Once she starts going on about clients she honestly loves — Streisand, Ali McGraw, Julie Harris — a tender look softens her face and we realize that all those stories about her fierce loyalty to her friends are all true.
There will be betrayals before this party even begin, and there will be more after it ends. But for now, just let this great dame park her keister on her couch, puffing away on a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other, and tell you what she misses most about the old Hollywood. “We used to laugh more. Honey, we used to have fun.”