A Schmoozy Cobra, About to Be Bitten
‘I’ll Eat You Last,’ Starring Bette Midler
By CHARLES ISHERWOOD
Chances are you are not a movie star. Chances are equally good that this state of affairs is not likely to change soon. But if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to explore that golden realm where the gods and goddesses of the screen dwell, race over to the Booth Theater, where you can enjoy an audience with a woman who consorted almost exclusively with box office luminaries, or “twinklies” as she affectionately calls them.
In “I’ll Eat You Last,” a delectable soufflé of a solo show by John Logan that opened Wednesday night on Broadway, Bette Midler portrays the Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, who at the height of her reign in the 1970s could make a career merely by issuing an invitation to one of her A-list-only dinner parties. For a limited time, the tightly closed doors of the Beverly Hills aerie in which Mengers held court are being thrown open, and for the price of a ticket we all get to feel a little twinkly for a night.
It’s a heady sensation, thanks to the buoyant, witty writing of Mr. Logan (“Red”), the focused direction of Joe Mantello and above all to Ms. Midler, who gives the most lusciously entertaining performance of the Broadway season. Dropping names as if to the rhythm of a disco beat, snapping out wisecracks like acid-tipped darts that find the sweet spot every time, proffering profanity-laden advice about how to get ahead in show business: as the frank, brassy, foul-mouthed Mengers, who died in 2011, Ms. Midler cradles a spellbound audience in the palm of her hand from first joke to last toke. (Mengers’s love of celebrity was perhaps equaled only by her affection for marijuana.)
Or rather she would so cradle us, if both hands were not otherwise engaged. As she welcomes us, Sue does not deign to rise from the pillow-bestrewn couch on which she sits, or rather slinks (“Forgive me for not getting up,” she says, unapologetically. “Think of me as that caterpillar from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ the one with the hash pipe”), but her silver-taloned fingers are in continual motion: slicing the air to accentuate a point, fiddling with the white-blond tresses framing her face, adjusting her signature glasses — oversize circles that symbolize a lifelong obsession with stargazing — or grabbing another cigarette or a joint, if not both at the same time.
We have been invited into Sue’s private domain to provide a distraction from a dark cloud that has appeared on a formerly cloudless horizon, regarding matters both social and business — which for this woman are one and the same. (The year is 1981, as the décor by the designer Scott Pask tastefully whispers.) Sue is regaling us with tales from her well-stocked larder of Hollywood lore while she awaits a phone call from her great friend Barbra Streisand, who was also the biggest jewel in the crown of her client list — until just a few moments ago. The story of the Streisand defection will be told, but not until Sue has dished up great mountains of glittery Hollywood dirt. We learn how Sue finagled the female lead in “Chinatown” for Faye Dunaway.