In “I’ll Eat You Last,” Bette Midler reads the phone book, to great laughter and applause.
This particular phone book belongs to Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, and contains only the names of the famous, the near-famous, or the once-famous who were Mengers’ clients or party guests, or the celebrities she wanted to be her clients or party guests.
I speak metaphorically about the phone book, but it’s apt for many reasons. Dressed in a caftan and seated on a couch throughout the entire 80 minutes of this thinnest of scripts, Midler as Mengers drops about 50 such names, telling extended anecdotes about a half dozen or so of them – how she learned to talk to her very first client Julie Harris by reading literature in the library during her lunch break, how she got Gene Hackman his role in “The French Connection” and Faye Dunaway her role in “Chinatown,” how she reluctantly gave up on her favorite client Ali MacGraw because MacGraw’s husband Steve McQueen – “an abusive, alcoholic, misogynistic, loutish, pretentious, mean, mean” man – didn’t want his wife to have a career anymore. We overhear Sue on the telephone trying to get Sissy Spacek as a client; this is one of the few times she isn’t directly addressing the audience. But there is one celebrity she talks about above all others: Barbra Streisand. It was Streisand who became her friend, and whose support helped Mengers become the most powerful agent in Hollywood, for a time – until Streisand dropped her. “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” takes place on the day in 1981 Streisand’s lawyers fired her, and Mengers is talking to us while waiting for a call from her famous friend.
On the curtain at the Booth Theater before the show begins, we read the words “Warning: This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip.” But only the profanity is for real; the character is presented as a foul-mouthed boor, albeit a funny one. As for the gossip: It is nearly a philosophical question whether one can consider as gossip stories from a previous era about people who are mostly forgotten — retired or dead. Mengers, who herself retired more than two decades ago, died in 2011. “I’ll Eat You Last” has a similar problem as “Lucky Guy”; it feels like a eulogy for somebody whose charms were appreciated by those who actually met her, and don’t quite translate to those who never did. It is written by John Logan, a screenwriter whose only previous credit on Broadway is the recent “Red,” a two-hander about the painter Mark Rothko that feels like a fluke in light of this pom-pom.
Mengers was not just a charmer; she also had a life story that is at least initially compelling: She and her parents left Nazi Germany when she was a girl. Her father, never finding his place in America, committed suicide. “He killed himself in a Times Square hotel room, which seems redundant,” the character Sue says in the play, which gets a laugh.
But what comes through the strongest in “I’ll Eat You Last” is not Sue Mengers’ winning personality, but Bette Midler’s. This is not a criticism of The Divine Miss M, who long ago proved she can act. Her delivery is the only reason to see this show. She finds the laugh in the lamest of lines. She is not even all that hamstrung by the decision by Logan and director Joe Mantello to keep Mengers seated on a couch during the entire show, despite the vast Hollywood living room set designed by Scott Pask. Twice during the show, once when she wants a joint and then when she wants a drink, she picks a member of the audience to go up on stage and go to the cabinet a few feet away to get it for her. The night I saw “I”ll Eat You Last,” Midler took full advantage of these interludes to improvise with the victim to amusing effect.
Broadway is better off with Bette Midler, who debuted on the Rialto as a performer nearly half a century ago in “Fiddler on the Roof” (and as a producer, of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert,” in 2011), and has not appeared on a Broadway stage for 33 years — way too long. But here’s a question I’m not sure anybody asked: Would Sue Mengers have advised Midler to take this particular role?
“I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers”
At The Booth Theater
Written by John Logan
Directed by Joe Mantello
Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Ann Roth, lighting design by Hugh Vanstone, sound design by Fitz Patton
Cast: Bette Midler
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
Theater tickets: $82 to $152
I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers is scheduled to run through June 30, 2013