When I first heard that Bette Midler was returning to Broadway, after a 30-year absence, to take on a new solo play portraying notorious Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, I was both thrilled and concerned. Would the Divine Miss M, with her distinct, outsized personality, be able to disappear into another character?
After all, when it comes to live performance, the legendary diva is at her best playing only one role — herself.
Yet after seeing the disarming “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers,” helmed by the highly capable Joe Mantello (“The Pride,” “Take Me Out”), I realized the question is beside the point. Indeed, she is convincing as the feisty, trash-talking agent, who died in 2011, yet she allows plenty of the brassy Bette we adore to shine through. This snappy, savvy homage is one delicious theatrical treat.
And let’s face it — the two personalities share the same DNA. Like Bette (or, at least, Bette’s public persona), Mengers, renowned for escaping a modest background and inventing the job of glamorous “superagent,” was loud, opinionated, witty, and at times shamelessly vulgar. With an unsavory start crooning to gay men in white towels at the Continental Baths in the early 1970s, the former “Bathhouse Betty” knows a thing or two about fighting her way to glory.
The piece opens with Mengers lounging on a comfy sofa in her Hollywood mansion (aka, Chez Sue) that, she gleefully boasts, was formerly owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor. The year is 1981, when the impresario, who once had all of Tinseltown in the palm of her hand, was starting to lose her grip. A pit bull of a dealmaker, her motto was “All showbiz, all the time.”
For his part, Mantello faced an especially dicey directing challenge. Much like the creators of the recent Broadway flop “Hands on a Hardbody,” who had to stage a lively musical while the actors kept one hand planted on a Nissan pickup, Mantello also had his hands tied. It seems that the overweight Sue suffered from health problems and had trouble walking, rarely venturing out of the house.
The dilemma: How to engage an audience for 90 minutes when the sole character is glued to the sofa.
Bette certainly bears a resemblance to Mengers, with her trademark bleach-blonde hair, oversize wire-rimmed glasses, and turquoise kaftan with silvery accents. If her body language — brandishing a cigarette or a joint (at one point, both at the same time), flipping back her hair, or picking up the phone — is meticulously choreographed, it feels completely organic.
A volunteer plucked from the audience is ordered to fetch her a joint and a drink, which breaks up any monotony and intensifies the intimacy between superstar and fans.
It doesn’t hurt that playwright John Logan (“Red”) has packed “I’ll Eat You Last” with plenty of juicy, meaty tidbits for Bette to sink her teeth into. Sue bombards the audience with childhood memories (she was a “fat German Jewess” who escaped the Holocaust and learned English from Hollywood B-movies), war stories from the peak of her career in the 1970s, bawdy jokes, and of course loads of dirt, allowing her to drop one boldface name after another.
Baby boomers especially will delight in hearing about clients — or former clients — such as Julie Harris, Ali MacGraw, Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Cybill Shepherd, Faye Dunaway, Jane Fonda, and Diana Ross, just to name a few.
Famous for holding exclusive dinner parties for the dog-eat-dog Hollywood elite, Sue once joked, “My own mother wouldn’t have gotten in if she were standing outside in the rain.” One of her favorite guests was Elton John because “he eats everything but pussy.”
The dynamo’s choicest morsels involve her dear friend Barbra Streisand. Sue claims she discovered the aspiring singer in a gay bar in Greenwich Village. “She was me if I had any talent,” she quips, later dismissing “Yentl” as a “cross-dressing Jew movie.”
A wisp of a plot finds Sue relaxing before one of her big soirees and waiting for a phone call from the illustrious Babs.
Scott Pask has designed a visually enticing set of a luxurious living room with its vast network of shelves heaving with books, knick-knacks, framed photos, and other memorabilia from her grand career. Fresh flowers are strategically placed around the room. Just outside are palm trees and a pool, evidenced only by reflected patches of light dancing on the ceiling.
But “I’ll Eat You Last” isn’t all witty barbs and giggles. An occasional wave of melancholy overtakes the room, like when Sue describes losing fickle clients to the rival talent agency CAA. The lighting, designed by Hugh Vanstone, dims as night approaches and she winds down her chat, much as her own star has begun to fade.
I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS | Booth Theatre | 222 W. 45th St. | Through Jun. 30: Mon. -Tues. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $82-$142 at telecharge.com