Appearing on Broadway for the first time in 30 years, Bette Midler doesn't stand up to greet her audience. She chooses to remain reclined.
"I'm not getting up," she says by way of warning. "It's my house, you get up. Only don't. I just had the carpet cleaned."
You mustn't take any offense. Midler is playing the wondrously snooty super talent agent Sue Mengers in a one-woman show that opened Wednesday at the Booth Theatre.
Even if you have no idea who Mengers is, an evening with Midler is always special and her apparent joy in playing this role makes it even more so. In "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers," Midler swears a blue streak, makes vicious fun of Hollywood and never has to stand up.
Set in 1981 and written by John Logan, the work is a straightforward biography of the rise of a chubby Jewish girl with a heavy German accent who grew up in New York and turned herself into a mover and shaker in Hollywood.
Her clients included Candice Bergen, Mike Nichols, Michael Caine, George Segal, Dyan Cannon, Bob Fosse, Sidney Lumet, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, Ryan O'Neal, Rod Steiger, Peter Bogdanovich and Gore Vidal, among others. (She likes to call all A-listers "Twinklies.")
As she freely admits, Mengers, who died in 2011, landed clients by threats, deception, cajoling, promises, guilt and doggedness — anything, really.
"We're all headhunters in my business. Every star's a potential client and if I don't steal them, someone else will," she says. "I was persuasive, I was funny. Most of all, I was ferocious. To me 'no' always meant 'maybe.'"
Over 85 minutes, Midler — rarely letting a manicured foot hit her carpet — lies on her elegant couch — speaks to the audience, gossiping furiously as she waits for a call from Barbra Streisand.
Joe Mantello directs with something of a challenge: A seasoned pro in Midler and yet a character who doesn't really move off the couch. So he expertly paces the whole thing like an audience with a blousy, foul-mouthed queen.
Midler wears oversized, tinted glasses and constantly scrapes at her silky straight bob, colored a heavenly hue only the rich can get away with. She's wearing an aqua caftan with sparkly embellishments and alternates smoking a cigarette and a joint, sometimes having both lit at the same time.
This warning appears on the curtain as the audience files in: "This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip." Here's another warning: Know who Michael Ovitz is.
Logan and Midler have tried to re-create the essence of Mengers and that means a familiarity with distant celebs like James Coco and agents like Ovitz is mandatory. Gossip isn't gossip unless you know the players, darling.
Logan, a Tony winner for "Red," has woven his monologue well and the transitions are seamless. Stories about Ali MacGraw and Gene Hackman take up larger sections, with the obligatory detour into Mengers' childhood tucked in.
The script works best when Midler is lecturing us about how the business of show really works, particularly her "Five Golden Rules," including Never Blow a Deal on Money.
And one of the best bits is not even in the script — Midler picks out a gentleman from the crowd during each show to fetch her a silver box with pot, and later picks on him again to carry a decanter of high-priced booze to her. Each time, he must take off his shoes. ("I'd ask you to join me, but that might encourage an unhealthy familiarity," she tells him.)
Not having ever been invited to Mengers' home — and for good reason since, she says flatly, "all my guests have to be famous" — we'll take Scott Pask's luscious Beverly Hills set, complete with enclosed palm trees, recessed lighting and the reflected light from a swimming pool. ("It's out there somewhere," Midler says dismissively.)
There are some overlaps between "I'll Eat You Last" and "Lucky Guy," the stage biography of journalist Mike McAlary, starring Tom Hanks. Both require some knowledge of the world they are showing and both look sadly on a lost time that was more freewheeling and fun.
"I guess that's what's changed about Hollywood most. We used to laugh more. Honey, we used to have fun," Midler says. "Trust me, you'll miss me when I'm gone."