NEW YORK — I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers presents a somewhat delicious combination for Broadway fanatics. First off, Mengers, the storied Hollywood superagent, seems ripe for the theatrical realm. When she rose to prominence in the 1970s, she cemented an iconic Hollywood image. Never too far from a cigarette or drink, Mengers, at least when imagined by playwright John Logan, spoke in one-liners and loved to “chat” about the business. Large tinted glasses, flowing clothes, independence and ferocity — all present for this woman.
The person bringing Mengers to life on the Booth Theatre stage is none other than Bette Midler, who has been absent from the New York theater scene for years. Midler’s portrayal of such a memorable character should feel hilarious and heartfelt, but Logan’s play cannot dig deep enough. We’re treated to 75 minutes of gossiping, which may satisfy our guilty-pleasure hunger, but it doesn’t leave a lasting impression on what made this superagent successful.
Midler sits for almost the entire play, so there’s not much that can be accomplished by director Joe Mantello. Air-traffic control this is not. She directly addresses the audience, letting us know that we’ve found her in the 1980s in her beautiful Beverly Hills mansion (credit must be given to scenic designer Scott Pask for an effective set). Mengers sits and waits for phone calls to interrupt her monologue. This being a relaxed setting, the Hollywood agent decides to dish about her life, her clients and her future. Nothing seems off the table.
The evening plays like a posthumous “day in the life of” episode. On this particular day in 1981, we receive vibes that Mengers’ star wattage is dulling in brightness. Her big clients — Gene Hackman, Barbara Streisand, Ali MacGraw — are leaving for other agents. This leaves Mengers in a reflective mood, wondering whether the game she loved so much has finally come to an end.
Although there is ample opportunity to understand this woman, whether it be appreciating her upbringing in upstate New York or her early days as a nobody agent, Logan is unable to stay on track. His chosen words are sidetracked by easy one-liners that grow repetitive and less funny as the evening progresses. It would seem that the creators thought having Bette Midler utter the “F” word on a Broadway stage was funny enough in and of itself. So we get the vulgar language that apparently Mengers was known for, and we get the jibes at the crowd (including a rather hilarious audience participation bit). Enjoyable stuff, but only a cursory glance at the woman underneath.
I’ll Eat You Last, which continues until June 30, is never boring or dull. Midler is far too talented to lose our attention. She enlivens this biographical sketch to admirable heights, almost to the point where it feels like a pulsating evening. The actress earns the laughs and plays up the physical comedy (as much as she can when sitting on a couch). Watch Midler’s facial expression and the manner in which she flicks her hair back. Even how she tilts her cigarette and constantly leans over to light a new one has a certain mastery. Although the character feels too basic, Midler finds new life with every passing word.
There’s also no denying that Mengers’ life was extraordinary. The superagent died a couple of years ago, leaving an unparalleled legacy. If you were big in Hollywood’s golden age (the 1970s), then you had a working relationship with Mengers. Her greatest feat was helping to discover Streisand, but her sustained success proved she knew how to play the system. There are some wonderful anecdotes that emerge, the best being how she secured Hackman the role of a lifetime in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. The MacGraw stories and how Mengers did not like Steve McQueen are also quite juicy.
And therein lies the difficulty with I’ll Eat You Last. Midler is remarkable, but the stories she tells are akin to Entertainment Tonight fodder. Delete the names Gene Hackman, Barbara Streisand and Ali MacGraw and insert any number of 2013 celebrities. The entire evening is a gabfest about Hollywood. It’s interesting to see Mengers as both a part of that business and somehow separated from it, but we never get to explore those avenues. I suppose we’re kept in the dark with only our laughs to keep us company. The play makes us chuckle, but maybe I wanted to think.