BootLeg Betty

Theater Review: “…Midler delivers the goods with razor-sharp timing…”

Toronto Star
Bette Midler and Alan Cumming go it alone in two very different Broadway shows
May 20, 2013

5-20-2013 7-10-00 PM

NEW YORK—People have been going crazy about seeing stars on Broadway this season, from Tom Hanks to Scarlett Johansson. But for the purest of all supernova experiences, you want to catch the object of your affection in a one-person show, with no pesky co-stars to get in the way.

Two very different, very successful examples of the solo walk on the high wire are currently being undertaken by Bette Midler, playing Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last, and Alan Cumming, tackling the title role in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Both actors received screaming standing ovations at the performances I attended, but both were rather surprisingly snubbed by the Tony nominating committee.

Evenings in the theatre don’t come in higher contrast than the two shows on display.

Midler doesn’t move a muscle all night to stir from the comfy sofa in Scott Pask’s elegant recreation of Menger’s home in Beverly Hills, c. 1981., while Cumming scampers over every square inch of Merle Hensel’s bile-coloured recreation of the intensive care wing of a very old-school Scottish psychiatric hospital.

Looking at each production in terms of its individual merits, Team Midler wins the competition, although Logan would be the first person to admit that Shakespeare’s script is a bit more substantial than his.

But what Logan does, he does uncommonly well. He weaves a web of anecdotes, gossip and character observation into a structure that is strong enough to support Midler’s outsized stage persona, and that is no small achievement.

“The Divine Miss M” is a term that was coined for Midler, not Mengers, but it could easily apply to both of them. Logan takes us on a quick survey of the latter’s career as it rises, soars and then starts to fall.

We catch Mengers on a bad day, when her starriest client, Barbra Streisand, has dropped her through her lawyers, promising a personal call later. Mengers is waiting for that call like the insecure child she tells us she once was, afraid to cross the schoolyard to talk to a popular girl.

While waiting for the phone to ring, she smokes some dope, drinks some booze and trashes a lot of reputations. Even the people she likes don’t get off easily.

There’s a lot of raucous, X-rated laughter on the agenda but some genuine heartache as well, as the once famous Julie Harris has to be told she’s too old for a role, or the glittering Ali MacGraw puts herself in the shadow of Steve McQueen.

Throughout, Midler delivers the goods with razor-sharp timing, perfectly assured inflections and a masterful sense of how to work the room. When pathos comes at the end of the show, she plays it lightly, which makes it work all the more effectively. Kudos to director Joe Mantello for knowing how to show this star off at her very best.

One would think that Cumming appearing in a solo Macbeth set in a psychiatric hospital would provide a bravura theatrical experience and it does, but not quite the one you might have had in mind.

Ever since dazzling Broadway as the epicene Emcee in Sam Mendes’s revisionist revival of Cabaret and more recently on TV in The Good Wife, Cumming has had the market cornered on ice-cold evil, barely controlled hysteria and wonderfully campy humour.

He displays them here with his usual panache and reminds us what an excellent technician he is, but this time around it doesn’t really seem right or proper.

What is the purpose in presenting a one-person Macbeth that exists inside the head of its psychopathic hero? After a while, it gets hard to tell the roles apart and Cumming has to resort to tactics like a grotesquely comic Duncan to make the characters stand out.

There are two psychiatric attendants present, which gets the play off to a much too clever start as Cumming asks them, “When shall we three meet again?” and they move in and out of the action to provide injections, restrain our hero during his more hysterical moments and then somehow inexplicably vanish when he nearly drowns himself in a “calming” tub.

Cumming is admirable for his intensity and stamina but, in the end, neither he nor Shakespeare were well served by the concept.

However, the idea of the two titans cross-germinating their projects, with Midler appearing as Lady Macbeth and Cumming making an 11th-hour cameo as Streisand, opens up yet another field of possibilities.

If a one-star show is good, might not a two-star show be even better?

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