PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers—I Laughed, You Bette
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers. Bette Midler, Linda Hart, Bruce Vilanch, Joe Mantello and Kathy Griffith were there – so was Playbill.
Cool, entitled, in command, Bette Midler puts down the magazine she has been idly fondling and peers over her tinted shades at the 766 people who seem to have suddenly showed up in her living room, applauding her like banshees. She drinks in their adoration a good 30-35 seconds, then issues Edict No. 1 in The Care and Feeding of Hollywood Super-Agents: "I'm not getting up," she declares with finality. "It's my house, you get up. Only don't. I just had the carpet cleaned for the party."
She's not kidding, either—about this, anyway. Should she require a canister of booze or her box of ciggies and tokes from a distant table, there'll always be a sycophant on the aisle in the third or fourth row happy to rush to the stage to step 'n' fetch for her (after he removes his shoes, of course, because of the just-cleaned carpet).
By the time she struggles free of her cocoon/couch and assumes the relative upright position called standing, the fastest 90 minutes on Broadway have elapsed, and at her feet is half of Hollywood, sliced, diced and ready for bite-sized consumption like so many hors d'oeuvres. Call it an immovable feast passing for a roller-coaster ride.
I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers began its master class in bastardly, agentry behavior April 24 at the Booth and will continue at least until June 30. Baby sharks might be advised to take notes if they expect to survive in this no-think tank.
As befitted the subject, the opening-night turnout was arguably the glitziest one of the season—so much so that the fourth estate was banished to the mezzanine so the orchestra level would be thoroughly star-stuffed with such as Linda Lavin, Barbara Walters, Harvey Weinstein, Harvey Fierstein, Lindsay Mendez, Marlo Thomas, Jennifer Westfeldt, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Ron Rifkin, Tom Kitt, Carolina Herrera, Jon Robin Baitz, David Geffen, Bob Balaban, Kelly Lynch, Martin Short, George C. Wolfe, Kathie Lee Gifford, Christine Baranski, Jerry Dixon, Victor Garber, Linda Emond, Sally Murphy, Barry Diller, Fran Lebowitz, Adam Guettel and Hayley Bond, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, Susan Sarandon, John McEnroe, Diane Furstenberg, Anjelica Huston and Jack Huston, Glenn Close, Jim Parsons, John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin.
Like many of the above, Kathy Griffith claimed a Mengers allegiance: "I went to many of the infamous dinners. Jon Hamm was at one. I see Jon here tonight. You never knew who you were going to see, and Sue never told you. That was the deal. She was one of a kind. I loved her. Bette Midler is one of a kind, too."
And, of course, Mario Cantone was beside himself with anticipation. "I can't wait to see this," he trilled. "Are you kidding me? This is a gay man's wet dream!"
The overriding rule of the game is never actually spoken in the play: Nothing Lasts, and that, alas, goes for as powerful a personage as Mengers, who maintained and manufactured stars with rat-a-tat-tat regularity from the '60s to the '80s. Pointedly, the play takes place in 1981, and the stars have left her roster for other galaxies. The marijuana has taken its toll, and Mengers rises to make a slow, stoned exit, having to prepare herself for the evening's party. "My squadron of stylists, primpers and morticians will arrive shortly. Don't bump into them on your way out."
We have been dismissed, yet we're not moving. She squints into the haze in front of her. "Of course, I would ask you to stay, but . . . well . . . look at you."
The post-show press conference was set up in the theatre's lower lobby—eight camera crews and three press outlets, poised for the usual shift-and-repeat ritual where stars answer the same questions with the same words. Let me tell you what a doll this Midler dame is. She improvised fresh, funny responses for all 11 of us!
Her entrance was a stunner. All the imagined pounds that roomily rummage around under Mengers' free-flowing caftan had magically evaporated, revealing a trim, shapely actress in a splendidly tailored frock. Ah, the magic of theatre once again!
For me, this delectably dishy diatribe was tantamount to a good wallow in angel-food cake, and Midler understood that feeling. "It's show business," she said definitively. "You have to love the business. You do. That's, actually, the truth. The one thing I have in common with Sue was: I love the business. I love the business of the business. I mean, I love everything about it—the lore, the mythology, the people who are involved. I love the idea that people came up from their bootstraps. The glove salesman who had nothing made this empire. I love it. I love she's part of it.
"She made herself up. She made that character up. That's not who she was. She was a little German girl who was a refuge from the Holocaust, and she made it up, and I think it's so American. People become what they want to become. I think the script captures that. It's, truly, an American story—that's what I love about it the most.
"I love that she made herself into what she wanted to be. Part of the problem with our lives is that, when we see something that is projected 40-feet high, we go into that soul. I remember I used to see the movies and I used to go walk out with someone's face superimposed on my face. I would think, 'I am that person,' but I wasn't. But I think that's one of the great things and one of the tragedies about the whole business: People are swept away because it's so big and so beautiful. I think she was swept away because what she had at home was nothing. Her mother was a horror, and her father did kill himself, and all those things happened, so she pulled herself up and ultimately she was a survivor. And that, I think, is what it is: It's human spirit surviving against all odds and living life in an uncompromising way.
"She never compromised ever once, ever. I shed tears on that stage. Sue never cried." Tears, when they come, punctuate the laughs, which occur like clockwork every four or five lines. Midler's delivery, of course, has an italic zing to it, lest one get by. Often she lapses into Margo Channing in her emphasis, but mostly it's conversation-lite.
"I have my moments," Midler dirt-kicked. "They like it when you work blue. My husband says, 'You just swear all the time. You just swear from morning to night. They love it when you swear.' Some people don't, but most people do. And, you know, I never said 'Damn!' until I was 16 years old, and when I did, my father beat me black and blue for saying that. Gosh, I guess I've come a long way!"
It's as startling to see Midler back on Broadway as it is to see Cicely Tyson, who came back the night before in The Trip to Bountiful after an intermission of three decades. Bette Midler beats that by four years—her last, Divine Madness, was '79.
Was she solidified in her ways and scared to come back? "No!" she replied. "I really liked the script. I felt the script was solid and that I could do something with it."
That script, which feeds the beast beautifully with buffo jokes that don't let up, is the work of a relative newcomer to Broadway, John Logan, who—in a more somber vein—has already logged up a Tony (for 2010's Red). He was once a guest at one of Sue Mengers' legendary plate-in-laps soirees, and that prompted this play and its constant comedy. "The original draft must have been an hour longer," he guessed. "It was just the process of working with Bette, working with [director] Joe Mantello, that I was able to shave it down to the nub. Bette was always in my head when I was writing it. Joe and I just stalked her for six months to get her to agree to do it—and, thank God, she did. I think she wanted the challenge. She wanted to do something new. She knew Sue. She realized it was going to be an exciting, scary thing to do."
Logan found his lead producer for this at the starting gate of his research: Graydon Carter, the award-winning editor of Vanity Fair, who had never produced a play before but had no hesitancy about throwing in with Arielle Tepper Madover to get the job done. "John dragged me into this—very willingly on my part," he admitted. "I think I was brought along because I was a good friend of Sue's and I could introduce him to Sue's huge circle of friends. He got to know Sue better that way. We did a lot of research for him. Then, I watched John and Joe Mantello put this together, and it was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I may just do it again, too."
His newest venture? "I'm writing for Playbill now," he beamed, referring to his Mengers memories, which have some hysterically funny asides in them, that currently run in the Booth program just before the Who's Who in the Cast listings.
Logan, likewise, has other irons in the fire: "On Monday, Joe Mantello and I start a two-week workshop for the Sting musical, The Last Ship. It's about a Newcastle shipyard closing down. And then I'm back to James Bond. I'm writing the next two."
His date for the evening was Ali MacGraw, who figures in one of the more moving episodes in the play. "I think she had a good time." he relayed. "She'd read her part of it. We spent a long time talking about it because obviously it's a featured part of the story, so I wanted to make sure she was comfortable with it. Ali sorta touched something in me, and that's why that part of the play has such emotion to it."
In keeping with Mengers' sense of lavish excess and extravagance, The Russian Tea Room (where all the big-dog agents do their deals—still) unleashed all four floors for the after-parties, but the really knowing guests never ventured beyond the first.
"I think I'm the only Harlette in the room," Hairspray's Linda Hart announced to all stunned comers. "I was a Harlett with Bette in Divine Madness, and it was the beginning of my career—my first Broadway show and her last, until now."
Her next project is taking its time getting off the ground: "For two years, I've been doing this workshop on Piece of My Heart—the life story of Bert Berns, based on a song he did for Janis Joplin. He wrote 'Twist and Shout' for the Beatles and 'Hang On, Sloopy.' I play Sloopy. He ends up in real life marrying Sloopy and having three kids."
Director Mantello, never one for opening-night press quizzing, was hanging with (as he always seems to be) Larry Kramer, whom he brilliantly played a version of in The Normal Heart. He was not sure exactly how he extracted such a superb showing from Midler. "She really applied herself. The one thing I said to her early on was: 'You're not going to like this, but you need to show up with the script under your belt, ready to go.' I said, 'It's going to be boring. It's going to be awful, and you're going to curse my name. At the end of the day, it's going to make the difference.'"
Writer and comic Bruce Vilanch, who has kept Midler in funnies for eons, was a Mengers bud. "I knew Sue fairly well. She would have killed to do this herself! She would want to sit there and f*ck Mike Ovitz for 30 minutes and then entertain everybody for 90 minutes. It was a captivating play. John took the best parts of her.
"I'm glad Bette got to show this color on Broadway. It's an interesting piece because it's all about a woman who felt she had to be the biggest bull in the china shop in order to get anywhere. A lot of women are going to go, 'Yeah, I remember when that was what we had to do. It's better now. Now, we lean in and get to run Facebook.'"
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