Theater: Brassy Bette
May 10, 2013
What a treat to see Bette Midler up close and personal in a one-woman show that suits her to a t. If you want to see the Divine Miss M dish a little dirt and have a little fun playing super-agent Sue Mengers — another larger than life personality — by all means do what you can to see I’ll Eat You Last. You won’t be disappointed.
The play itself is a trifle by John Logan barely worth discussing. Mengers was a super agent of the old school, a brassy pioneering woman who broke her way into the business and loved, loved, loved every minute of it — cursing on the phone at a studio chief, wooing stars, hosting parties with all her twinklies (her nickname for celebs) and generally having a blast. Mengers was so unique she even enjoyed a profile on 60 Minutes.
Here we see Mengers holding court on her couch hours before she’s to host another party. It’s the fateful day Barbra Streisand fired her longtime friend Mengers, a blow Mengers never really recovered from though she knew getting fired was always part of the game. It’s late afternoon and the sun slowly sets as Mengers tells her tale — from a chubby little German Jewish immigrant whose bravest act was to cross the school playground and talk to the popular girls to the would-be actress who found her calling by discovering the talent in others and selling it to directors and studios and the media.
The set by Scott Pask is handsome and director Joe Mantello smartly works with Midler to develop a real performance when she might have just put her own brassy spin on well-worn anecdotes from Mengers’ career. But Midler is a Broadway baby who appeared in Fiddler On The Roof for three years as one of her early big breaks. She just sits on a couch but she also works hard to make each slump, each pause, each decision to lean forward or slip to the side actually be driven by the text. She might have coasted but instead Midler works hard and delivers soundly. I won’t quite say she was robbed since this season saw so many good female performances but now that I’ve seen the show I’m even more surprised she wasn’t recognized by the Tonys.
As for the show? They got that one right by ignoring it. You get a fair amount of laughs but those all come courtesy of Mengers. The best anecdote revolves around actress Ali McGraw and how Mengers was actually human enough to recognize that some things are more important than a movie career. (A rare trait indeed, in Hollywood.) But the setting, the platitudes, the late afternoon to the dark of night time frame all feel by the numbers and obvious. Mengers was far more complicated and interesting than that. Logan scratches the surface and nothing more. Midler, happily, digs as deep as she can.