There is a moment in Broadway’s “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers,” as the one-time Hollywood agent extraordinaire is perched on her upholstered throne in Beverly Hills, that you half expect to see Erich von Stroheim cross the stage with a young William Holden in tow. Mengers, as portrayed by her real-life friend Bette Midler, has slowly begun to reveal cracks in her armor as the realization that Hollywood has left her in its rearview conjures up the faintest salt tear.
While Mengers would likely give Norma Desmond a smack upside the head for allowing show business to get the upper hand, the two strong-willed women struggled with the same storyline: they each lost the fame game as a different breed of star rose to power. Unlike Desmond, however, Mengers didn’t beg for a final close-up. She reinvented herself, becoming hostess to the stars. Her self-described “twinklies” and their dinner parties kept Mengers moving. This shark couldn’t stop swimming, lest she suffer Desmond’s noirish fate.
“Entourage”‘s Ari Gold had nothing on this pioneer agent, as quickly becomes apparent in playwright John Logan’s comedy, a rollicking jaunt down Menger’s memory lane. Only Mengers could have sold then-client Barbra Streisand on starring in an obvious flop, “All Night Long” (which happened to be directed by the agent’s husband). Of course, that spelled the beginning of the end for Mengers, as screwing over Babs would predictably do to one’s career. Streisand plays a pivotal role in this play, albeit an invisible one, as Midler is the only actor on stage. In fact, “I’ll Eat You Last,” as staged by director Joe Mantello, moves along at what Mengers refers to as “elastic Streisand time.”
The play begins with Midler sprawled out on a plush sofa, planted next to a phone, she tells us, awaiting an important call from Streisand. The star’s lawyers have just given Mengers the axe following the disastrous reception of “All Night Long.” Midler spends a majority of this 90-minute play speaking directly to the audience, even interacting with one unsuspecting patron by inviting them onstage to fetch her drugs and later booze. Surely, if the two divas could speak without lawyers, this whole pesky firing business would be settled. The audience never does find out if the one-time friends have that phone call, but plenty of other fractured Hollywood relationships are hashed out, complete with Mengers’ exquisitely brash turns of phrase.
Logan has written a play best understood by those with a sense of what Hollywood once was, and also familiar with the likes of Mike Ovitz and David Geffen. Or, at least, audiences need to love business insider lingo, because Mengers cared about nothing else, and “I’ll Eat You Last” faithfully sticks to that throughline. “Why would anyone talk about anything but showbiz?” Mengers rhetorically asks at one point in the play.
Midler digs beneath her friend’s ball-busting demeanor, finding a misty-eyed Mengers, although these moments of a powerful player appearing verklempt are brief in an otherwise zinger-filled production. Yet, during those pauses, when Mengers truly saw the brutality of a business all to eager to cast aside yesterday’s superstar for a younger crop, Midler seamlessly spins the laughs into silence.
While Holden’s body doesn’t end up floating in pool at “I’ll Eat You Last”‘s closing scene, the ringing of Menger’s unanswered phone—presumably Streisand has finally dialed her former comrade—gives the audience a glimpse at the broken dreams of a once wide-eyed Hollywood fan.
“I’ll Eat You Last” may prove too nostalgic and wonky for theatergoers on the lookout for a night of theatrical brevity, but Midler’s personal affection for Mengers is infectious and will provide Hollywood outsiders with enough celebrity dishing to compete with the likes of Perez Hilton and TMZ, though with an actual sense of true love for all things show.