First Nighter: Bette Midler Divine in I’ll Eat You Last
April 25, 2013
Tuning into the gossip the Divine Miss M spews jubilantly as another Divine Miss M is such fun it hardly matters that five minutes after the romp ends, much of the dirt dished with such five-alarm relish has completely faded in the cool night air.
That’s to say, the iconic Bette Midler playing the iconic Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last at the Booth is so devilishly entertaining as the performance whizzes by, only an old theater fogey would point out that what’s described as “a chat with Sue Mengers” is just that: a chat and nowhere near being a play.
It can be said safely enough that the 80-minute exchange is a character study, although its intermittent pokes at emotional depth register as contrivances and render this particular study of character about as deep as the nail polish on the Midler/Mergers finger nails — those fingers often twirling a cigarette or even two at a time.
During the course of the talk that Midler’s Mengers offers ticket buyers — as if they’re (more or less) welcome guests in her sumptuous living room (Scott Pask designed it) — the hostess covers her rise from emigrÃ© German girl to unprecedented prominence in her field, but mostly she regales the spectators with obscenity-sugared opinions of the many people she represented. Until, that is, they quit her, and then her lonely-at-the-top condition is not too subtly underlined.
The Divine Miss Mengers is firing her stinging verbal confetti on the day in 1981 when she’s received word through lawyers that she’s no longer working with Barbra Streisand, whom she’s known since the sublime singer still had the middle “a” in her given name. Told she’ll be getting an explanatory ting-a-ling from the star herself, Mengers whiles away the time gabbing about landing Gene Hackman his award-winning French Connection role, attempting to pry Ali MacGraw free of Steve McQueen’s abusive clutches, relaying her rules for successful agenting and hurling too many other zingy anecdotes to enumerate.
Directed creatively by Joe Mantello, Midler does all her blabbing while shifting positions on a long, cushion-covered sofa and wearing a sparkling caftan (Ann Roth’s bow to Mengers’s preferences). She never leaves her perch, even twice summoning an audience member (who doesn’t look like a plant) to fetch for her. But although Midler is deprived of her signature fast-footed shuffle and an opportunity to sing even one chorus of “(You Gotta Have) Friends,” she still has her ebullience — the attribute on which she and director Bill Hennessey built the Divine Miss M in the first place. Unsurprisingly, it works like a charm.
Note to militant Midler fans: Anyone acquainted with Midler’s wheelchair-bound mermaid may wonder if perhaps that sofa will turn out to be motorized. It doesn’t. Note to Julie Harris fans, who fear the great actress’s astounding six-Tony career is fading from memories: Mengers’s first client was Harris, whom she adored and about whom she tells one of her more poignant tales. Should Harris catch the merry show, she’ll undoubtedly be more pleased than will be Streisand, who’s also being held up to some additional ridicule in downtown’s current Buyer & Cellar.