BootLeg Betty

Theater Review: Bette Midler Gives A Gleefully Engaging Performance

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Bette Midler Opens On Broadway In ‘I’ll Eat You Last:’ REVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
04/26/2013

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One Hollywood legend is playing another on Broadway, and there’s a good chance you’ve only heard of one of them. But by the end of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, which opened on Wednesday at the Booth Theatre, everyone walks away feeling like old friends.

That includes Bette Midler, and every guest welcomed into the Beverly Hills mansion of Hollywood super agent Sue Mengers for this aptly titled and utterly delightful ‘chat.’ Written by John Logan, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Hugo, The Aviator) and Tony-winning playwright (Red), the show offers a delicious insider glimpse into the seedy yet glamorous world of the Hollywood talent business.

Sue Mengers, whose career spanned nearly thirty years beginning in the 1960s, wasn’t just any agent. She discovered Barbra Streisand singing in a gay bar, landed Gene Hackman in The French Connection, represented Sidney Lumet, Mike Nichols and Bob Fosse. But loyalty is not a well-known virtue in this business—as the show begins, Sue is expecting a call from Barbra to fire her.

In the meantime, she spends the evening doing what she loves best: dishing, smoking (tobacco and otherwise), and picking up the occasional phone call from an A-list star. Ms. Midler proves her rightful place in the latter category with her gleefully engaging performance, delivered entirely from the comfort of her plush sofa. Why stand? We’re all friends here.

Under Joe Mantello’s fine direction, Sue’s stories take on a happy rhythm, punctuated with often-riotous punch lines. An opening example: regarding a certain legendary guest expected at her dinner party later in the evening, “Elton’s the easiest dinner guest ever: he’ll eat anything but pussy.”

Through the course of a tight 85 minutes, Sue delivers everything from behind-the-scenes gossip, straight-shot industry wisdom, and enough of the soft side beneath her brassy surface to bring us firmly on her side. Like any animated conversation (one-sided though this one may be), Logan’s script is built on non-sequiturs that nevertheless flow together naturally. Good agents can talk to anyone, and Sue’s certainly no exception.

From gathering courage to approach the most popular girl on the playground to a profession in schmoozing, through-lines from Sue’s formative experiences are simply drawn. But Logan’s economy with storytelling serves the play and its star well, who keeps her captive audience rapt with interest.

If we find Sue in the twilight of her career (Logan’s play is set in the early 80s, Sue died in 2011), her years have made her wise, though she’s no less passionate about show business. She loves the game with every fiber of her being (including her diaphanous kaftan), even as the game keeps changing and she loses her footing.

When she finally does stand to conclude our chat (spoiler alert), the feeling is pretty near momentous.

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