When the curtain opens on Broadway’s I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, Bette Midler’s face is hidden behind a tabloid magazine and she’s not speaking. It doesn’t matter. The crowd whoops and hollers and seems to press themselves into their theater seats so as not to deliver a standing ovation—yet.
You feel her presence. You know the smile that’s coming, so infectious it could make John Boehner giggle. You can already hear her line deliveries, drawn out and dazzling, trailing off into the punch line that ripples past the crowd like a decadent waterfall. The sting after the bullet almost funnier than the shot itself. And it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting; you know she’s going to wrap you up, find you, use you, pull you in, and invite you to the most delicious slumber party on earth.
And you’re right. Starring in this 70-minute, one woman play about legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, Midler doesn’t sing and she doesn’t have back-up dancers and she doesn’t dress as a mermaid in a wheelchair and she doesn’t tell Sophie Tucker jokes. She’s playing a character, one perhaps as big as Midler herself, and she’s brilliant. If the character is intertwined with Midler’s own outsize persona, all the better. At just over five feet tall, Midler’s own façade is too big to stand in the shadows, and this excellent play by John Logan (Red) allows us to see Bette as Sue and Sue as Bette. If you added songs it could be her Funny Girl.
Director Joe Mantello knows exactly what he’s doing in the casting of Midler. He gives us a wonderful glimpse of Mengers, with her stories and gossip and excessive drug and alcohol use—at one point Midler/Mengers is balancing a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other, and a drink of some concoction, while talking!—using Midler as the catalyst for an overbearing woman who’s funny as all get out, then, in an instant, at the edge of tears. Sound familiar?
Set in 1981 and (happily) almost plot-free, Mengers is planning one of her infamous dinner parties while waiting impatiently for a very important ex-client to phone. Bathed in an Ann Roth day dress and backed up by Scenic Designer Scott Pask’s exquisite set, she stretches out on the couch for a chat. With us.
Mengers talks to the audience about the keys to being a super agent at a time when women were rarely at the top of the star chain. Kudos to Mantello and Logan for keeping Midler seated for almost the entire play; Mengers reportedly made everyone come to her, and when Mengers/Midler needs a drink or a smoke, she forces an audience member to do the menial labor.
Along the storied way we get gems and barbs about Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Sissy Spacek, Gene Hackman, Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen, and a myriad of other smaller players and Hollywood executives. Her star power and humor mask a deeper regret over her own fading celebrity and her treatment from many of Hollywood’s A-list. When a big movie star calls to cancel for the night, Menger’s/Midler’s ache reverberates up the aisles and beyond the balcony.
Change the names and date to the present and this could be The Bette Midler Story, a woman whose own talent has often been overlooked by bad films and bad choices and the lack of quality material for women in Hollywood. Yet her humor never dies—like Judy Garland’s voice it works as her savior—and Midler has never shied away from speaking her mind about Hollywood’s stars and star system. She’s not a star fucker, she’s a star “go fuck yourself.” If it’s hurt her career in the process, it’s only added to her talent and our good fortune in watching her bite.
Midler was not nominated for a Tony award for this performance, and I won’t delve into the often absurdities of awards shows and nominees. It’s an added layer of irony to the production, deliberate in its cruelty as it seems. How Midler feels about it is anyone’s guess, but I can’t think of a better awards opener than “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers About the Tony Awards.” She’d eat the audience alive.
At the Booth Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the website or telecharge.com. The show closes June 30 and has been sold out for every performance.