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The Present Is a Lot of Laughs — Streisand, Midler & More
Cara Joy David
April 26, 2013
I’ve never been a gigantic Barbra Streisand fan. This may rank as the least Jewish thing I’ve ever said, with the possible exception of a few weeks ago when I told my dinner companions that I sing “Silent Night” to myself when I can’t sleep. But it’s true. I don’t hate her; I’ve just never gotten the cult of personality. So it’s odd to me that she was in some ways the subject of the last two plays I saw, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengersand Buyer & Cellar.
Let me start with John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last and why this column might as well have been titled, “Why Bette Midler Should Receive a Tony Nomination.” I have always loved Bette Midler. I was so excited when this show was announced, I think I actually picked up the phone and called people to tell them (so many people in fact that I reached a good amount of folks who really did not care). The show’s press agent, Aaron Meier of Boneau/Bryan-Brown, likely never wants to get another email from me with “Bette” in it. (Though mentioning him here does give me the opportunity to offer a belated public congratulations to Aaron and Heath Schwartz for their big promotions to Vice President of Account Services at BBB a few months back.) Clearly I was setting myself up to be disappointed. And, the thing is, I was not. I didn’t have the same sad pout that I did while watching Julianne Moore in The Vertical Hour. Far from it.
I’ll Eat You Last is not a brilliant play. So many of the particularly genius Mengers stories that I have heard through the years are absent. But Bette sells it. She is completely captivating. I may not have been spellbound if someone I had never heard of and never seen before was giving that exact same performance. My mind may have wandered from that couch if some random actress was sitting on it. It just doesn’t matter. We don’t see performances in a vacuum — that was Bette Midler up there.
This is a tough year for actresses. There have been many worthy performances and there are only five Best Actress in a Play nomination slots. I am assuming, after these reviews, Midler’s name will be announced Tuesday. After all, the New York Times said she “gives the most lusciously entertaining performance of the Broadway season.” David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “Midler’s consummate ability to deliver brassy chutzpah, fierceness and silky comic seduction at the same time is harnessed to perfection, allowing just a judicious whisper of vulnerability.” Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News stated: “Midler is a riot simply sitting still and dishing the dirt.” And this is just a sampling. But on the off chance a nominator is reading this and still waffling, let me explain why Midler deserves a nomination.
It’s not easy to do what she is doing. She’s returning to Broadway after many, many years, in a season crowded with one-woman shows and therefore inevitable comparisons. She’s thoroughly inhabiting a real life character, super-agent Sue Mengers, while never standing up. Comedic performances (unless they involve physical farce) are often not given as much credit as dramatic turns — I don’t agree with that. Stuff like this is tricky to pull off. It is a testament (not of Mary but) to Midler that she managed to win over so many of New York’s often harsh critics. I hope people go see her in this. I hope she comes back.
Now onto the other Streisand-related show, Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar. While Streisand is talked about a bunch of places in I’ll Eat You Last, the play is really about Mengers. Buyer & Cellar is more about Streisand, or at least a fictional character’s fictional relationship with Streisand. Michael Urie tells the audience at the beginning of the play he won’t do a Streisand impersonation, but of course he does a little of one. It’s what you’d expect, humorous. I enjoyed Tolins’ imaged tale of celebrity infatuation. Unlike Midler’s Mengers, who gathers celebrities as props around her dinner table, Urie’s Alex More is star struck. This gives Urie a lot to play with — and he has a grand time of it. It’s a completely entertaining night at the theater (which begins after the line to the bathroom at the Rattlestick ends).
All this is to say, that people clearly love telling stories about Streisand. I don’t get her, but I obviously am fond of hearing people talk about some version of her. Of course, when a Broadway producer called me yesterday to tell me about another show with Streisand as a character, I still quickly retorted: “Come on now, stop.”