Lounging on a sofa in a sparkly blue caftan in a picture-perfect Beverly Hills mansion while chain smoking and waiting for the phone to ring, Bette Midler plays campy 1970s producer Alan Carr in the new Broadway one-person show I’ll Eat You Last. Oh, sorry, she’s playing campy 1970s superagent Sue Mengers. As Sophie Tucker. As Bruce Vilanch. As Alan Carr. As Bette Midler.
As she addresses the audience with one-liners and female-drag-queen-style talk in between informing us that she was just fired by Barbra Streisand‘s team, the agent-as-sitdown-comic routine initially seems wearying in its superficiality and artifice. Surely Mengers had more to her than this kind of two-drink-minimum interpretation.
Fortunately, John Logan’s script develops more depth as Mengers showers us not just with dirty lines and dishy stories, but with insight as to how an agent deals with her clients, what she must do to provide a proper face to the world for them, and what it’s like to become yesterday’s hot potatoes. As the monologue grows in texture, Midler shines, serving less of a caricature and more of a person–someone who it turns out has some real feeling lurking beneath the caftan and the zingers. This Sue tosses off a joke–and a warmed-over one at that–about her father’s suicide, but later waxes poignant about the horror of having to tell an aging client (who’s a brilliant actress) that she’s not “sexy” enough to land a TV movie. It was in the battlefield of Hollywood that Mengers developed her deepest scars. But she never forgot how to have fun playing the game, which Logan has said is part of what propelled him to write the play.
By the chat’s end, Midler’s star power and timing have once again proved incomparable. I defy anyone else to get as much as she does out of the moment when Sue looks at the receiver, waiting for Barbra, and shrieks “Call me, you cunt!”