A Consuming Passion

By Geary Danihy

A portrait of an especially engaging shark swimming in shark-infested waters is what we have in John Logan’s I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, which opened on Broadway in 2013 and is currently playing at TheaterWorks.

Who, many of you might ask, is, or was, Sue Mengers? Well, for those in the know about the lore of Tinsel Town, during the 60s and 70s she was a talent agent to be reckoned with, a hard-driving, deal-making, brash, acerbic woman who flourished with style and flair in a world dominated by men. During her reign as one of the people in Hollywood you always took calls from she represented, among many others, Julie Harris, Barbra Streisand, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Bob Fosse, Gene Hackman and both Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen, all of them her glittering, glistening stars floating in a manufactured firmament.

To give you an idea of Mengers’ personality, Bette Midler played the role in the Broadway production. Up in Hartford, it’s Karen Murphy’s task to realize this larger-than-life woman, which she does with kinetic, at times almost frantic energy, for throughout the 90 minutes of this one-act play, Murphy is in constant motion on the sofa that is the main prop in John Coyne’s period-evocative set design. Wearing a somewhat gaudy caftan, which she pulls at, rearranges, flutters and flounces, Murphy infuses Mengers with the unbridled energy familiar to anyone who has had to deal with a child on a sugar-high.

The frame for this walk down Mengers’ memory lane is that the talent agent is preparing to host a party, with the audience dealt with as interlopers, uninvited representatives of the star-struck, movie-going public with whom Menger condescends to speak before the stars arrive (at several points she actually solicits an audience member to be her servant -- and he complies). This immediate dissolution of the fourth wall is, initially, a bit off-putting, and it takes a while to become comfortable with the play’s main conceit. It’s not until Murphy, down-shifting for a moment, relates Mengers’ history -- escape from Hitler’s Germany, a father who commits suicide and a mother described merely as a Gorgon -- that the character on stage begins to take hold of the audience’s imagination, becomes more than just someone spewing often venomous words. It is in this extended sequence that Murphy touchingly creates a defining moment in Mengers’ life: she is a shy schoolgirl embarrassed by her German accent who learns English by watching movies (starring Bette Davis, Gloria Swanson and Rosalind Russell) and eventually finds the courage to walk across the playground to introduce herself to the most popular girl in her class. This moment will become one of the play’s controlling metaphors.

The very nature of the play and its multiple references to actors and films of a by-gone era may well be self-limiting with regard to its audience appeal. As Murphy, in rapid-fire fashion, recounts interaction with, and “dishes the dirt” about, various stars, much of what she recounts may be lost on those who were born after President Johnson proclaimed the onset of the Great Society (that was early in 1965). Attention to and a complete understanding of the play requires a cultural literacy that may well be beyond many of those who are not yet ready for an AARP membership. As a college professor who has, on occasion, made references in class to Deliverance, Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection and Chinatown only to be met with blank stares (don’t even try saying “Rosebud” or “Frankly, Scarlett...”), I can attest to a general lack of awareness of filmic history that entails little more than vaguely remembering having seen Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption (both nominees for Best Picture in 1995) -- might as well just stick with “Let it go!”

As with all one-person shows, there’s a certain ebb and flow to I’ll Eat You Last, and much of the ebb involves Murphy merely maintaining character, bitching and kvetching, but the flow moments, and there are several of them, are thoroughly engaging. The first is the aforementioned schoolgirl reminiscence -- then there is Mengers in an extended phone conversation with Sissy Spacek, her confrontation with Bill Friedkin in an attempt (ultimately successful) to get Gene Hackman the iconic role of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (she suggests that Jackie Gleason was being considered for the role -- yikes!), and her efforts to nudge Ali MacGraw back on track after the young actress married Steve McQueen (here Mengers paints an especially biting portrait of the star of The Magnificent Seven, The Sand Pebbles and The Great Escape). Then there is Mengers’ on-going relationship with Streisand, which is referred to and dramatized several times -- it is, in fact, Streisand’s phone call that Mengers is waiting for throughout the play, a phone call that will confirm that the star is leaving Mengers (as have many of her other clients -- sic simper!).

As already noted, it takes a while for Mengers’ character to come into focus, but when it does there is a certain bittersweet quality to it, and to the agent’s life as a whole. Director Don Stephenson has chosen to allow Murphy to basically rush down the tracks of Mengers’ life, an express train when, perhaps, it should have been a local, giving the audience the opportunity to assess what they have seen before rushing off to the next destination. There are, however, fleeting moments when the inherent superficiality of Mengers’ life-long pursuit of fame and fortune flicker to the fore and you get the sense that beneath the brash exterior is a frightened child who never really overcame the trauma of her formative years. Yes, that child walked across the playground, but the adult she became apparently felt compelled to continue to find playgrounds to walk across, constantly testing acceptance. It’s there in Logan’s play and in Murphy’s performance, but you have to look for it, see beyond the cigarette smoke and booze and marijuana and non-stop chatter and put-downs to the quivering guppy hiding beneath the impressive shark facade.

I’ll Eat You Last runs through August 23. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

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