The Divine Miss M has finally, after forty years, found her way to a Broadway stage in a legit play which could be called The Divine Miss M, but isn’t, because that title was already taken. This Miss M would be Sue Mengers, and the play is I’ll Eat You Later, a chat by Hollywood super agent of the 70s and 80s who presided over her movie star clients’ every professional move and many of their personal ones as well, all the while collecting 10% of their astronomical fees.
Sue Mengers, German born, had arrived on these shores as a child with her parents, not speaking a word of English. In time, mimicking her favorite movie actresses, she admits she wound up sounding like a gum-chewing, tough talking movie star, a combination of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and a handful of others. Like anything else about herself she didn’t like, she left her German accent in the trash. Feeling the outsider in her grade school in the Bronx, a “fat Jewish German girl,” she worked up a new persona, and one day marched across the school playground to address the most popular girl in the school. “Hello”, she said in her Davis/Crawford accent, “I’m Sue Mengers!” and the girl “turned out to be nice!”
For ninety minutes, Midler as Mengers, expensively gowned in a pale blue print caftan, holds us in the palms of her expressive hands, while she presides over us on a very expensive sofa in a very expensive mansion she calls home. She makes it clear that we, the audience, are her guests but we must leave before her A list guests (she calls them “twinklies”) arrive for one of her fabulous dinner parties.
We are in Beverly Hills in 1981, just as her twenty year ride on the Hollywood merry-go-round is slowing to a halt. Her home, decorated by her “boys”, is tasteful and filled with expensive bric a brac.
On this night she will throw a party for dozens of the major stars in her industry, but her enthusiasm is somewhat dampened because she has just been fired by “Barbra Streisand’s lawyers”, and she’s waiting for a personal phone call from this old friend. The superstar had been her first client, and they’d been friends since way back, since before the actress dropped the middle “a” from her first name.
While waiting, she fills us in on her remarkable life. After twenty years of creating stars by force feeding them to a sometimes reluctant establishment, she is now a star herself.
Listen to her tell you how she fought like a she-lion to land Gene Hackman the role that catapulted him to stardom and an Oscar in The French Connection. Not only will you split your sides laughing, but you’ll learn a lot about what a really committed agent in Hollywood can accomplish. Mengers was motivated by an insatiable need to be rich and famous. In the beginning she had tried to achieve it by acting, but that dream faded after a short term in drama school, “If you can’t be king, it’s fun making kings.” she rationalized, and found that the job was even more thrilling than doing it for herself.
Bette Midler has never appeared in a straight play before, and though she spent many months in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, she didn’t make much of a mark in musicals either. As the sole star of several stage spectaculars starting with The Divine Miss M. she developed a following large enough to interest the movies and throughout the ’70s she hit the big time with such winners as “The Rose”, “Beaches”, “For The Boys” and a dozen other good films.
TV beckoned, too, and she was a great success as Madame Rose in the musical Gypsy on HBO. She’s toured the world, sold millions of albums, published two books. And now at last she’s found this beautiful one-woman play by John Logan (Red) to surprise and delight us once again.
I say “surprise,” because she’s so often played variations of herself that her star turn in this play, subtitled “A Chat With Sue Mengers”, gives us a view of the range of her talent. She spends 90 minutes on her sofa, smack in the middle of her glass enclosed living room, surrounded by books, awards, photos and all the accoutrements of class and culture, and she transforms herself into this middle aged pulchritudinous blonde bombshell called Mengers.
Mr. Logan has put the language of the streets into her mouth, but in her performance, she makes it sound as right as the Queen’s English would sound coming from Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. Her references to her swimming pool (“It’s out there somewhere; I never use it”), her husband (her marriage lies somewhere between “Nora and Nick Charles and Nora and Charles Manson”) and her five rules for success as an agent, two of which are “Never lie to a client” and “Never tell a client the truth” are a few of many gems.
To hear how both axioms apply is a treat, as is just about everything else that Mr. Logan has written for her. And how thrilled he must be at what she does with his words. She uses every inch of herself to illuminate them and send them sailing out to us as darts landing firmly on our funny bones and our hearts. It is truly a bravura performance, one you would miss at your peril.
When you attend, if you don’t want to join the cast, avoid the third row on the aisle for she managed to lure one poor gent up on to the stage so she wouldn’t have to rise from her perch to fetch a drink, and later another prop. If he was a plant, he deserves a Tony for best supporting player, but I suspect he was just one of us, and no matter what he brought up on stage with him, she’d know how to ad lib her way into one big laugh after another, as she did at our matinee.
I do believe this gifted Bette Midler arrived late in the season to knock all her sisters out of the box, and come Tony night, I certainly hope she goes home with her statue. This performance and this play are a must see.
I’ll Eat You Last is onstage at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NYC. Details and tickets.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: