‘I’ll Eat You Last’ Broadway Review: Bette Midler Twinkles as a Legendary Hollywood Star-Maker
Wednesday, 24 April 2013
Marking her first appearance in a drama on Broadway, Bette Midler stars as onetime Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last,” which proves to be not a solo play so much as a yummy ball of caramel-covered popcorn.
What? You were expecting the divine Miss M in Ibsen?
Premiering on Wednesday at the Booth Theater, “I’ll Eat You Last” offers a trivial though funny blab-fest as Sue Mengers, lolling grandly upon an overstuffed sofa in her Beverly Hills mansion in 1981, dishes the dirt on her famous clients and colleagues.
Before the 80-minute bio-drama begins, the show curtain warns the audience: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip.” Such are the contents of the tawdry script by John Logan, writer of more substantial works such as “Red” and “Never the Sinner.”
The situation is that Mengers has just been fired by her biggest client (and close chum) Barbra Streisand and now awaits a heart-to-heart phone call from the star. Later this evening, Mengers will host one of her famous A-list dinner parties but in the meantime she is pleased to chatter to us about her life, the movie business and any number of celebrities she has known and represented.
Puffing away on cigarettes and joints ”“ sometimes simultaneously ”“ Mengers recalls the time when she saw Streisand first perform in a gay bar, explains the cardinal rules for succeeding as a Hollywood agent and trashes Steve McQueen both as a human being and for ruining Ali MacGraw’s career.
Dozens of other screen luminaries are verbally molested in the course of Mengers’ monologue, which is bitchy, bawdy and at times wickedly amusing. Of course, many of the stars that Mengers references ceased twinkling quite some time ago, so the show often seems like an R-rated audiobook version of People Magazine, circa 1981.
Fortunately, Midler expertly slings out Mengers’ ceaseless wisecracks and gives the fast-talking tootsie eloquently hissing consonants and a wonderful sense of voracious energy. The good nature that suffuses Midler’s own personality lends amiability to a character that, for all of her smarts, might otherwise seem awfully harsh. If traces of Sophie Tucker occasionally creep into Midler’s intonations as a Jewish red hot mama, that’s entirely forgivable.
Midler’s keen instincts as a comedian prove invaluable in delivering the material ”“ how brilliantly she works the audience at the Booth! As an actress, Midler effectively and subtly renders all of the poignant notes needed to achieve the play’s graceful conclusion as Mengers faces up to her professional sunset.
Director Joe Mantello no doubt has something to do with Midler’s emotional shadings and he otherwise provides a posh production. Draped by designer Ann Roth in a voluminous sea-blue caftan, sporting oversized glasses and long pewter-blond bangs that she often sweeps back with an airy gesture, the exuberant Midler appears entirely comfortable inhabiting Mengers’ florid persona, and that’s half the battle of animating a solo show.
Consider “I’ll Eat You Last” as a serving of fruity sherbet to end the Broadway season and you may not feel so guilty over enjoying this trifle.