I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers is a delicious dish on Hollywood
By Amy J. Barry
A classy, middle-aged woman, who is clearly large and in charge, welcomes us into her well appointed ’80s-modern Beverly Hills living room with an elongated window reflecting the word “Hollywood” backwards.
She immediately starts talking with only the fewest of pauses—to light up a cigarette or joint or pour another drink -- and never stops talking during the entire one-act, one-woman, 80-minute performance of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers at Hartford’s Theaterworks.
The play first opened on Broadway in 2011 starring Bette Midler as Sue Mengers. Here, Karen Murphy gives a mesmerizing performance as the dramatic and imposing personality, chatting up her dwindling career as the first woman Hollywood talent agent. And, the intimacy of Theaterworks lends itself well to this confidential one-way conversation.
Murphy, fully immersed in her character’s persona, informs us that she’s waiting for a phone call (during which she expects to be fired) from Barbra Streisand’s lawyers. One of her biggest clients, she stresses that she knew Streisand when she was still Barbara with an “A.”
We learn Mengers’ back story -- that she was a Jewish refugee, whose parents made the good decision to get out of Germany before Hitler struck, and come to the land of plenty where they were plenty poor. And how she knew, even as a young girl that she was going to grab hold of the American Dream anyway she could.
She tells us about getting hired as a receptionist at the William Morris Agency in New York in the early 1980s where she listened, learned, and absorbed everything. She started networking and pressing the flesh and was soon offered a job in a talent agency.
She admits that after realizing she wasn’t attractive enough to become a “super star,” she set her sites on becoming a “super agent,” and with an inordinate amount of chutzpah, charm, and gritty determination, she soon collected an impressive group of “Twinklies” as Mengers was known to refer to her star clients.
“I was funny, persuasive, and ferocious,” Murphy quotes Mengers. “To me, ‘no’ always meant ‘maybe.’”
Besides Streisand, Mengers’ stable of stars included Faye Dunaway, Burt Reynolds, Julie Harris, Sissy Spacek, and many more. And we get the inside scoop on them all. Like a mother hen, Murphy passionately espouses Mengers’ love and loyalty to her “Twinklies,” along with her frustration and irritation when they don’t do what she thinks is best.
The only thing she says she loves more than her husband, writer-director Jean-Claude Tramont, is dinner party gossip. Though oddly, playwright John Logan never has her bring up their relationship again throughout the whole performance. She appears so independent; one forgets she’s even married.
Mengers had rules for everything and her rules for her dinner parties were that all her guest had to be stars and “it’s all show biz, all the time, don’t talk to me about anything other than movies.” She was unapologetically not interested in politics or science -- and especially not children.
Murphy does an exquisite job of portraying the very complex Sue Mengers, under the very focused direction of Don Stephenson. She captures the self-made woman’s toughness and tenacity, as well as her vulnerability. We feel her sadness and struggle to accept that her heyday is almost over as her clients begin leaving left and right for the “New Hollywood” made up of here today, gone tomorrow celebrities more than cultivated, accomplished actors.
Murphy makes it clear how Mengers’ past so informed the woman she became. But that’s only discussed at the beginning and it would have added to the poignancy of the performance if playwright John Logan had continued to interweave Mengers’ earlier experiences into the script.
Adding some variety and fun to the production, Mengers, who never gets up from the sofa, invites -- or rather demands -- that a man in the front row come on stage and fetch from the bar her box of joints, and later a bottle of booze, but only after removing his shoes so he doesn’t get dirt on her beautiful rug.
One complaint: Despite being warned in advance that there will be smoking, drinking and, swearing in the production, the smoke --even though it’s not real cigarette or pot smoke -- smells awful and is too much, causing several people to cough and leave their seats during the performance we attended. It lessens in the second half of the show.
The tinted glasses, colorful caftan and glitzy jewelry worn by Murphy, designed by Gregory A. Poplyk, is trademark Mengers. John Lasiter’s mood lighting adds dimension to the unchanging but richly appointed “I’ve arrived” set by John Coyne.
Performances of I’ll Eat You Last continue through Aug. 23 at Theaterworks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Call 860-527-7838 for tickets or online at www.theaterworkshartford.org.
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com and theday.com.