Bette Midler in I’ll Eat You Last, A Chat With Sue Mengers, Booth Theatre, New York, review
Bette Midler is a riot as the legendary Hollywood ‘super agent’ Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last, in her first Broadway performance in 30 years, says Hermione Hoby.
By Hermione Hoby7:00AM BST 25 Apr 2013
Emblazoned on the curtain before the show’s start is this warning: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip.” And the most delicious of those vices, the one that seems to have sustained legendary Hollywood “super agent” Sue Mengers the most, is gossip. It also happens to be the only one she’s willing to share with us, her audience. For a too-short ninety minutes, Bette Midler – resplendent in a bejewelled turquoise kaftan on a peach sofa – is Mengers as she drinks, smokes (sometimes cigarette and joint simultaneously) and pops chocolates in her mouth like punctuation marks to her recounted triumphs.
Midler, who met Mengers several times before she died in 2011, has described her as, “one of the greatest characters that ever landed in Hollywood,” and, “a terrifying presence, to be honest.” And, most likely, a terrifying role too, particularly because Midler’s last Broadway appearance was over thirty years ago when her concert review Bette! Divine Madness was ending its run. John Logan’s play is set a year later, in 1981, when the famously sedentary Mengers was entering what her friends referred to as “Sue’s blue” period. As famous clients leave her Mengers sees the world waiting “gleefully for the giant to fall” but even when blue, she remains a lioness: Midler, all rolled Rs and undulating cadences as she reminisces, is a riot.
Our hostess is also fabulously, unprintably foul-mouthed and every launched curse feels like an affirmation of her own existence. Logan, best known for his rather more sober Mark Rothko play, Red, and the screenplay for Skyfall, has provided her with a peach of a script. Often, Midler seems to be struggling to hide her own relish – and why struggle? When she brags about running over Faye Dunaway she slings the line with a little head shimmy of sass and satisfaction and her own jokes frequently send her rolling around on the sofa in hysterics, cigarette or whisky glass – or both – held aloft.
As the diffuse light of an LA afternoon fades to evening, Mengers takes us through her beginnings – her family’s flight from Germany when Hitler, “started getting stroppy” and her introduction to American high school as “the fat little German Jewess.” It’s here that the making of Sue Mengers begins. Setting her sights on the prettiest, most popular girl in school, she crosses the playground to talk to her and from that moment, it’s her gutsiness and her hunger to be around the starriest that define her. Soon after joining the William Morris Talent Agency as a receptionist people are talking about, “that cute little blonde who seemed to know a lot of people and had opinions about which she was not shy.” Then, that cute little blonde becomes an agent in her own right, one with a “Great White” appetite for A list clients and her ascent is sealed: “What was I doing?” she asks, “- Crossing the playground: “Hello, my name is Sue Mengers, William Morris Agency.” You want to be a thing? Make yourself that thing.”
Eventually, she’s, “not just representing stars; I am a star.” One very much worth crossing the playground, or indeed the Atlantic, to spend an evening with.