If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Sue Menegers Subject of TheaterWorks Play
They don't make 'em like Sue Mengers anymore. Hollywood's premiere "superagent" from the 1970s and 1980s dominated the behind-the-movies-scene representing clients raging from Sissy Spacek and Gene Hackman to Ali MacGraw and Burt Reynolds. She lived for her clients and cut deals that were the envy of her male counterparts until big business and corporations with lawyer/agents finally made her obsolete. Audiences are treated to this glamorous piece of Tinsel Town trivia with John Logan's one-woman play, "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers" currently making its Connecticut debut at TheaterWorks. Sue Mengers lives again...if only for 90 minutes or so in Hartford.
Logan's play is more anecdote than drama, more newsy gossip than revealing character study, but it remains an entertaining portrait of a woman now very much a part of Hollywood's past. I couldn't help but compare this play to Mark St. Germain's recent "Becoming Dr. Ruth" which was produced last season in Hartford and did a far better job in providing real insight into the woman behind the celebrity that was Dr. Ruth Westheimer. In "I'll Eat You Last" we learn a little of Mengers' history as a child of German parents who fled the Nazis and moved to America where she learned English by watching movies. Young Sue soon learned to sell and reinvent herself as she talked her way into agents' offices until she became one herself. An early success was befriending a then unknown Barbra Striesand and then riding the superstar's coattails for a long time. The premise of "I'll Eat You Last" has Mengers (played by a game Karen Murphy) sitting in her plush living room awaiting a call from La Striesand. It seems Mengers has been fired by the diva and, as the evening plays out, we hear Sue's side of the story as well as delicious dish about several stars of the period. It's insider Hollywood to be sure and there may be some in the audience who have no memory for several of the names Mengers chooses to drop.
Played by the inimitable Bette Midler in its 2013 Broadway run, "I'll Eat You Last" absolutely demands a bigger-than-life personality to play Mengers, a woman who did not suffer fools gladly and who would literally die for her clients. At TheaterWorks Karen Murphy, under the direction of Don Stephenson, tackles the role admirably but not with total success. The actress is obviously talented and has a long list of impressive credits. Just recently I saw her make something witty and memorable out of the usually thankless role of General Cartwright in "Guys and Dolls at the Goodspeed Opera House. But holding the stage playing the outrageous and out-sized Mengers while confined to a sofa for 90 minutes, is a bit more of a challenge. At several points during the production Murphy lost focus, reaching for lines or proper emotions. Her zingers hit their targets on most occasions but just as many withered and died without purpose. She repeated gestures and often seemed uncomfortable chain-smoking cigarettes and weed. Murphy was actually more effective in the rare, quiet moments when Mengers becomes introspective and she also does some wickedly funny impersonations of Striesand. Still, she's physically wrong for the role (rail thin where Mengers was rather fleshy) and ultimately never quite at home with the agent's grand manner.
The living room setting is nicely appointed by scenic designer John Coyne but I do question the addition of a large floral centerpiece on the coffee table which tends to block Murphy's bottom half to viewers at times. The backwards Hollywood sign on the upstage wall is a classy touch, however, and it's all warmly lit by lighting designer John Lasiter.
"I'll Eat You Last" probably has limited appeal with only a certain audience of movie fanatics appreciating some really rude stories about Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. But, for some of us, that will be enough.
“I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through August 23. For further information and ticket reservations call 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org .