Bette Midler in Iâ€™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 showâ€™s start is this warning: â€œThis play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip.â€ And the most delicious of those vices, the one that seems to have sustained legendary Hollywood â€œsuper agentâ€ Sue Mengers the most, is gossip. It also happens to be the only one sheâ€™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, â€œone of the greatest characters that ever landed in Hollywood,â€ and, â€œa terrifying presence, to be honest.â€ And, most likely, a terrifying role too, particularly because Midlerâ€™s last Broadway appearance was over thirty years ago when her concert review Bette! Divine Madness was ending its run. John Loganâ€™s play is set a year later, in 1981, when the famously sedentary Mengers was entering what her friends referred to as â€œSueâ€™s blueâ€ period. As famous clients leave her Mengers sees the world waiting â€œgleefully for the giant to fallâ€ 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 familyâ€™s flight from Germany when Hitler, â€œstarted getting stroppyâ€ and her introduction to American high school as â€œthe fat little German Jewess.â€ Itâ€™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, itâ€™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, â€œthat cute little blonde who seemed to know a lot of people and had opinions about which she was not shy.â€ Then, that cute little blonde becomes an agent in her own right, one with a â€œGreat Whiteâ€ appetite for A list clients and her ascent is sealed: â€œWhat was I doing?â€ she asks, â€œ- Crossing the playground: â€œHello, my name is Sue Mengers, William Morris Agency.â€ You want to be a thing? Make yourself that thing.â€
Eventually, sheâ€™s, â€œnot just representing stars; I am a star.â€ One very much worth crossing the playground, or indeed the Atlantic, to spend an evening with.