Anyone who loves and longs for juicy gossip but feels a bit shamed by the desire should hurry to the Booth Theatre, where I’ll Eat You Last, the new play about Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers and starring a delicious Bette Midler, is in performances.
Written by John Logan (Red) and directed by Joe Mantello, this 90-minute monologue opens begins with the statement, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, come sit by me.” And the audience is more than happy to do so. Set in 1981, on the even of one of Mengers’ legendary dinner parties, the famed agent has settled into the pillow-strewn couch for a nice long chat. She unapologetically declares that she won’t get up for us, but she will treat us to a few stories about her career. And by her career, she means famous people in Hollywood. Because, after all, as Mengers says, “I just don’t understand why anyone would talk about anything other than showbiz.”
The real-life Mengers, who died in 2011, rose to fame as the first female superagent in Hollywood. And this Mengers, vividly brought to life by a wickedly funny Midler, who gives a performance filled with zest and relish, is more than happy to talk about herself. Relaxing in a silk caftan (designed by Ann Roth) her sun-soaked living room (the palatial set is designed by Scott Pask, with the warm afternoon sunshine portrayed by Hugh Vanstone’s lighting), Mengers tells us just how she got to be where she is and who she is.
For Mengers is nothing if not a self-made woman. At first, her story is standard biopic. Immigrant girl ashamed of her heritage learns how to talk like the classmates she admires. Girl becomes obsessed with the movies but abandons her dream of being an actor because she doesn’t think she’s pretty enough. Girl climbs career ladder and shatters her own personal glass ceiling, rising to success in a male-dominated world. In short, girl makes good.
And once she has made good, oh, how she enjoys it. Logan’s script is packed to the brim with names dropped left and right and insider stories about this person and that person. We learn how Mengers obtained the female lead in “Chinatown” for Faye Dunaway, the lengths she want to in order to get Gene Hackman cast in “The French Connection,” and we hear the inside details on how Ali McGraw was seduced away from Hollywood by Steve McQueen, and how the rising star became a supposedly happy housewife. We hear story after story about how Mengers got what she wanted. We even witness her attempting to woo Sissy Spacek away from her current agent, because, as Mengers informs us, if people aren’t trying to steal your clients, you’re doing something wrong.
Loyalty, or lack of it, is an interesting theme in I’ll Eat You Last, for all is not well in Mengers’ world. she has just lost one of her top clients and oldest friends, Barbra Streisand. Streisand’s agent has done the firing and Mengers is waiting on a phone call from Streisand herself. She recounts the story of what went wrong and offers the first glimpses of her vulnerability. Witnessing a crack in this steely exterior is fascinating; we get another when a dinner guest calls to cancel at the last minute.
While the stories and zingers are plentiful and plenty entertaining in I’ll Eat You Last, I wanted to know more about Mengers herself, especially her thoughts on being the only woman in such a male-dominated industry. Aside from a few comments about how people viewed her or were surprised by her – “A woman who drank and swore and knew what she was talking about and looked f***ing adorable” – little was said about her own personal experiences in the industry. Did people expect her to sleep with them to get her clients their parts? Did she resent being excluded from sauna room business deals? Was her husband – only mentioned once, in passing – resentful of her success? How, if at all, did her job affect her marriage?
As the first female superagent, Menger’s contributions to society and ambitious women are certainly plentiful, but she doesn’t reflect on herself much at all, except to share her thoughts about perhaps leaving the industry. These reflections aren’t very deep and seem to only scratch the surface of a complex and fascinating woman, but how deep can a play about Hollywood celebrities be?
For it’s clear Mengers’ star is beginning to fade, just like the sunlight she was bathed in as the day began. But night is approaching; as the afternoon whiles away and she indulges in marijuana, her reflections on “the great Mahjong game that is Hollywood” become darker. But, as she says, she loves the game.