One of the distinguishing features of the dullish theater season has been the rise of the solo show. Last week alone, three opened on Broadway. Producers’ love for the genre makes sense: Running costs tend to be as low as it goes, and even when a one-person show doesn’t feature the best acting, it often has the most acting. And that can be enough to get a Tony. Done right, these shows take theater back to its magical roots, when a shaman would tell a story around a campfire. When they’re vanity projects built on such hoary devices as talking to off-stage characters or writing letters and reading them aloud, they can make theater feel like a dried-up old fossil. Fortunately, most of the ones currently running cast a dazzling spell.
We’ve got Holland Taylor as a persuasive Ann Richards in the enjoyable Ann, her own play about the Texas governor; the one-of-a-kind Alan Cumming captivates in the strenuously inventive one-man Macbeth; Tristan Shurrock stars in his own story Mayday Mayday, about a Humpty Dumpty-like fall from a wall; the thoroughly charming Buyer & Cellar features Michael Urie as an out-of-work actor who gets a job working for Barbra Streisand; and Fiona Shaw stuns as the virgin mother in The Testament of Mary.
The newest arrival turns out to be the tastiest treat of the season, I’ll Eat You Last. A muumuu-clad Bette Midler plays the biggest Hollywood mama of them all, Sue Mengers. The super-agent handled most everybody who was bigger than anybody in the ’70s, including Barbra Streisand. Appropriately, everyone on the play’s creative team is an A-lister as well. The writer is Tony-winning playwright and Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan, the director is two-time Tony-winner Joe Mantello, and Mengers’s famous Malibu spread is sumptuously suggested by design greats Scott Pask (set) and Hugh Vanstone (lights).
The play, like most based on a real figure, is primarily cut and paste, but it’s all prime cuts. Logan has artfully assembled Mengers’s worldiest words of wisdom and kickiest quips along with the biographical basics, and he’s made good on the big decisions: when in the timeline does the play occur, who is she talking to, and what is she doing?
He introduces us to Sue just after she’s been fired as Streisand’s rep through her lawyers. Mengers has requested a call from Babs herself. While waiting, Sue does her best to do as little as possible. She never leaves her cushy peach-colored couch, and when she needs a drink refilled or more pot, she has an audience member fetch it for her. Yes, there’s no pretense that we’re anything other than who we are, her audience. Logan has the terrific idea that she’s holding court, as her kingdom implodes around her. Under what other circumstances would she give the likes of un-famous us the time of day?
These choices sidestep—or, rather, wholly avoid, as that implies too much action—the staginess that muck up so many one-person shows. Pretty much every one I saw growing up starred the queen of the genre, Julie Harris, coincidentally Mengers’s first client. In most, if I remember correctly, she spent a lot of time packing a trunk. Even with one of the greatest actresses in theater history, her directors and writers thought they needed a steady supply of frou-frou busy-ness to keep the audience’s interest from flagging.
Instead, by following Mengers’s penchant for staying put, Logan’s play keeps things refreshingly simple. All the onus is on the performer’s presence and delivery. The divine Miss M is heaven-sent for tasks like this. The twinkle in her eye is its own electric grid, and the merest move of her foot from floor to cushion generates as much giddy delight as a Pippin acrobat’s flight through the air. Midler’s had experience letting her fingers do the walking, as her electric wheelchair-bound stage persona Delores DeLago proves. And as Sue, her fingers are a wonder, puffing on a joint with one hand and a cigarette with the other.
Midler last played a role on stage 40 years ago, wending her way up at Fiddler on the Roof from a replacement villager to oldest daughter Tzeitel. She stayed for three years because she couldn’t find other work, until she created her own at the Continental Baths. The rest is decades of entertainment history. So she knows from whence Mengers speaks.
As a recent German immigrant before the outbreak of World War II, the zaftig Mengers drilled the accent out of her voice so she could make a good impression on the most popular girl in her grade school. She fearlessly willed herself to “cross the playground” to introduce herself, and as a result, she made her first American friend. Then, as a young woman going up the ladder in the male-dominated talent-agency biz, she crossed the club floor to introduce herself to Streisand after one of her early appearances and made a connection that would help catapult both to the stratosphere. At the height of her career, she drove up to William Friedkin’s house and blocked his car until the director agreed not to cast Charles Bronson as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection before meeting client Gene Hackman.
Midler also doesn’t need to tamp down her star power to play Mengers. In Hollywood circles, she was as famous as the stars she represents. Multiple movie roles have been based on her, including Shelley Winters’s poisoned-pen parody of her in Blake Edwards’s S.O.B.. Sue was more pleased by client Dyan Cannon’s loving send-up in the Herbert Ross-directed The Last of Sheila, which was written by another client, Anthony Perkins, and, in his only screenplay credit, Stephen Sondheim. And Elizabeth Taylor, in her final screen appearance, provided a sweet homage in the TV movie These Old Broads.
One assumes Mengers would be happiest with the current incarnation. If Midler’s Sue isn’t all that different from another alter ego, Soph, it’s a sign of her suitability more than any lack of range. The performance gains nuance as we learn Mengers has made the cardinal mistake of mixing business with her most intimate relationships. She’s gotten Streisand to appear in All Night Long, starring Hackman and directed by Mengers’s own husband, Jean-Claude Tramont. When the film takes in less than Streisand’s record paycheck, Sue becomes the scapegoat. Hackman’s left her and a wave of others followed suit, including the biggest jewel in Mengers’s professional crown, Babs, who was also the maid of honor at her wedding to Tramont.
Facing both a demotion in her place on the Hollywood totem pole and a feeling of abandonment, Sue’s willing to while away the hours teaching us how to handle stars: never lie to them; never tell them the truth; it’s about power, not the money, but get them more than anyone else gets; and it’s a jungle out there. And Mengers is too smart not to be surprised when discovering first hand, as she keeps waiting for that phone to ring, that even the most carnivorous cannibals eventually get eaten.
This may not be the deepest dish. Logan smartly tempers expectations with his subtitle, A Chat with Sue Mengers. But if it’s not one for the ages, it’s funny and telling about the time “when the business was fun.” And that business is central to our cultural imagination. The only disappointment is Logan’s refusal to take a leap into areas that haven’t been documented. We learn little, for instance, about Mengers’s tempestuous, three-decade long marriage. With his play Red, Logan’s dialogue for painter Mark Rothko also kept mostly to the known facts. But it was the breakout role of a younger artist that allowed Eddie Redmayne to cut loose and win a Tony. Tellingly, the character was fictional. Is it possible that, when it comes to characters based on real people, a Hollywood player like Logan isn’t cannibal enough?
Nonetheless, the production is a theatrical feast. Mantello’s creative team finds ways to keep pleasing the eye. Midler’s aqua caftan, by the legendary costume designer Ann Roth, glimmers in the light. Vanstone’s lights, evoking the reflection off her egg-shaped pool, built only to keep up appearances, shimmer ever more noticeably in the dying day. By the end, one could even take them for the shadow of flames.
While all the elements have been cooked to perfection, what sticks to the ribs is the hint of rawness at its center of things. Perhaps the longest story is saved for Sue’s passionate attempt to convince Ali McGraw that sacrificing her career for husband Steve McQueen—in Sue’s eyes, an insecure bully and a fake—was a catastrophic mistake. But McGraw continues lovingly to do his bidding. Mengers conclusion is that the star’s “heart lied to her.”
That’s Logan’s best piece of writing and it’s the special ingredient Midler uses to make a hearty meal of the material. Mengers has convinced herself that she’s never mistaken business for friendship. But by exposing shards of devastation over being fired by Streisand, Midler shows how Sue’s heart lied to her. The character finally resonates beyond the fun and the facts as she realizes her reign is over. Diminished but undaunted, Mengers continued to hold sway at her A-list-only soirees from her couch. Midler hosts the most enjoyable party in town for just a little while longer. Long live the queen.
I’ll Eat You Last is running at the Booth Theatre.