Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2013
I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers a new play by John Logan. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Ann Roth. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Cast: Bette Midler.
That she's played by Bette Midler, who exudes the same kind of gritty-yet-glitzy authority, only adds to her allure. Midler, who hasn't appeared on Broadway since her Divine Madness concert in 1979 (though she was a producer of Priscilla Queen of the Desert), savors each of Sue's words and anecdotes about moviedom's biggest power players, from Gene Hackman to Michael Ovitz to Barbra Streisand and beyond, as though they're fine wine, and dispenses nuggets of show-biz wisdom as though she's invariably doing you the biggest favor in the world.
Yes, for all intents and purposes, this woman is queen. But in watching Logan's play, which has been directed by Joe Mantello, only one question comes to mind: Queen of what?
Darned if I can figure it out. Admittedly, I'm not especially fascinated by the sex, drug, and money lives of Tinseltown's elite, so it's perhaps possible that, for example, Sue's reminiscence of how she trekked out to visit Sissy Spacek at her Virginia "mud" farm in order to steal her from her then-present representation actually contains some historic or emotional depth that eludes me. But from my perspective, I'll Eat You Last plays as a flimsy excuse for a fair amount of bitching and trivia, and a whole lot of name dropping.
Sue's idea of a good time is regaling us with elaborate details of how Hackman scored his starring (and eventually Oscar-winning) role in The French Connection, or the personal disaster that All Night Long represented for the overpaid and underdelivering Streisand. That event is even what gives the work its minor impetus: Streisand has sent word that she wants out, but Sue, whose history with her goes back to the pre-Broadway New York club circuit, wants Streisand to drop the bomb herself over the phone. And while she's waiting for itand, it is implied, the final death knell of her fading careerto ring, she's happy to chat with us.
Chat, alas, is all it is. Treating us with the same dismissiveness she applies to everyone else around her leads her to expound at great length about everything she can imagine, except anything that may humanize her. From her 1981 vantage point (when she was rapidly approaching 50), Sue drops a few sepia-toned details about escaping Adolf Hitler's Germany, trying to become an actress in New York, and her earliest years working on the other side of the phone.
But these are no more than brief tastes, and because Logan fails to provide anything more nutritious, they don't linger on the palate (or in the mind) long. "It's all business," is the closest Sue provides to an excuse, and it may be as good as any, but it doesn't make for a good show any more than it might make for a good movie. Even Sue's husband, writer-director-producer Jean-Claude Tramont, is a nonentity: He's good for a brief gag ("On a good night we're Nick and Nora Charles; on a bad night we're Nick and Nora Charles Manson") and as a springboard for a discussion of All Night Long, but he registers as nothing more than yet another power player floating through the ether, no more or less vital to her than, as she says, "Jack and Angelica... and Warren, and Elton John."
Without something heftier to latch on to, good dish doesn't have a chance of becoming good drama. Logan scored a much more impressive success three years ago with Red, which dissected Mark Rothko's abstract expressionism and how it related to and affected his personality: In other words, Logan used externals to unveil the internalsexactly what needs to happen with Sue, but never does. Stargazers may love the insider tidbits, but that's all they'll get. And even those don't quite attain the dazzling, salacious, or insightful stature it seems like they should.
Mantello is likely not at faulthis work is at most acceptable, and given that Sue's personality is of the one-joke variety and she rises from that couch only once, it couldn't be much more. (His direction of the play The Other Place earlier this season demonstrated him to far more fiery and creative advantage.) Scott Pask has designed a luscious Beverly Hills living room to impart the proper grandeur, and Ann Roth's flowing cocktail dress and Hugh Vanstone's lights round out the elegance.
What little substance exists in the show comes from Midler, who breathes as much life as possible into her role. She oozes laissez-faire style that constantly reinforces her status as a behind-the-scenes headliner. And her line delivery is just as pointed and polished as you'd expect: She munches on and spits out lines with glee, and has no trouble scraping the ceiling with some of the choicer bits. My personal favorite: "She's got that rarest of things in performers," she says of Streisand: "She's got taste." Then the follow-through: "About everything but which parts to play."
Midler moans that punch line with an exuberant exhaustion that tells you everything about who Mengers was (she died in 2011) and where her mind and heart were. Logan may have given her the opportunity to emit it, and for giving Midler that entrée into Mengers's soul he should be commended. But I'll Eat You Last doesn't let you forget that that's also where that particular exploration stops.