Review of I’ll Eat You Last, Music Theatre of Connecticut
Sue Mengers, the subject of John Logan’s entertaining and saucy monologue I’ll Eat You Last, A Chat with Sue Mengers, was a groundbreaking Hollywood agent, often called the first “super agent.” She made her mark, a pioneering woman in a man’s world, under what was called at the time “the New Hollywood,” to differentiate the hip up-and-comers of the 1960s and 1970s from the old guard that had been sustained by the studio system. Most of the big stars that Mengers helped make household names—often with Oscars garnered—are already facing something less than instant recognition with contemporary audiences. And therein lies the ever-encroaching subtext of this vibrant but oddly vulnerable play.
Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen, once a hot couple, have long since gone the way of all flesh, as even Brad and Angelina will one day spark the quizzical look that “Jack and Anjelica” most likely earns today from anyone under thirty. Celebrity is not a constant and those who rule the tabloids for a time will one day be eclipsed in the popular imagination. Mengers knew well how to play the game that the Pink Floyd song “Have a Cigar” called “riding the gravy train.” The question nibbling at the edges of Mengers’ reminiscences in this breezy one woman play concerns what happens when the gravy’s gone.
Mengers, given larger-than-life presence by Jodi Stevens, directed by Kevin Connors at Music Theatre of Connecticut, reclines on a couch in her swanky Beverly Hills home, regaling us with tales of how she came to lead the life she always dreamed of. A Jewish family from Germany, fleeing Nazism and speaking little English, the Mengers settled in Utica, NY, but, after the suicide of the traveling salesman father, they headed to the Big Apple, or rather Brooklyn, birthplace of one of Mengers first clients, the ever-twinkling star Barbra Streisand (this was, as Mengers lets us know, so early Streisand was still “Barbara”). Mengers, we suspect, has the goods on many a lifestyle of the rich and famous, but what she wants to impart are the tricks of the trade, as in: how to become a great agent and make careers.
That might entail camping outside the home of film director William—or “Billy”—Friedkin, to wheedle a consideration of her client Gene Hackman for the part—Popeye Doyle in The French Connection—that would earn Oscars for both director and lead and make Hackman a star, despite his lack of leading man qualities. Events like that add credence to Mengers’ canny sense of what works—all the other actors being considered would’ve made for a much weaker film—but it’s not all success stories in Mengers’ dossier. The way Ali McGraw threw over a film career to be a wife and mother, married to brutish and misogynistic McQueen still burns up Mengers, even though McGraw might well have sussed that she wasn’t much of an actress and landing a real leading man might be better than making movies with his peers. Still, this is the world according to Mengers—who rather exults in not knowing or caring about political causes or places other than Hollywood. Any movie person who wants to talk about something other than the movie business and its “twinklies”—stars and only stars—won’t be getting an invite to her stellar soirées.
The set-up of the play is that Mengers is entertaining us—the hoi polloi—before entertaining her A-list guests later in the evening. In flowing, glittering loungewear that recalls the muu muu, Mengers lazes about, drawing languidly on a joint and cigarette in either hand—she even compares herself to the famed hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland (the one that asked, rather peremptorily, “who are you?”). The point of her career is getting her clients “to the watering-hole,” and, when possible, poaching other clients from other agents, and she’s at her best when enacting the moxie she employs to those ends, as when Sissy Spacek calls and Mengers dispenses off-the-cuff advice, even though Sissy is not a client, or when she re-enacts for us the gamesmanship by which she got Faye Dunaway a career-making role in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown over, allegedly, Jane Fonda. As with most gossip—and Mengers is very convincing about gossip as the lubricant of choice in Hollywood—it’s impossible to know if what she says is true or not. What she thrives on is the entertaining anecdote.
Jodi Stevens is so compellingly charming and so natural a hostess that we, the audience, might well feel we’re in a tête à tête with her, or on a date, or on an audition. Stevens keeps the tone bouncing through a range of crowd-pleasing intimacies, but there are deliberate drops that give us insight into how someone like Mengers plays the game with herself in private, keeping score of her triumphs, her gaffs, and trying to work out the “secret” to her—or any rival’s—success. Behind the façade—and Stevens lets us glimpse its cracks—there’s the harrowing drive to know what others are saying and thinking and to try to control it. This is a world where friends are contacts and social occasions are work, where business and pleasure mix because, for Mengers it seems, business is the only pleasure (other than something to smoke or drink). Even sex seems to be valued primarily as an accomplishment rated by whom you did it with. Marriage—and Mengers has an off-stage husband who writes and directs and produces—comes across as the behind-the-scenes that Mengers won’t let us see.
Like the “smoke and mirrors” of show-biz, Logan’s play is a protracted tease. Will Mengers receive the call she’s awaiting, from Streisand? What will we learn about them if we see Mengers huddled up with her favorite famous alter-ego? We’ll never know, as I’ll Eat You Last saves that tasty morsel for the end, off-stage. Whatever happens, we’re on Sue’s side, and that in itself is a victory.
I’ll Eat You Last. A Chat with Sue Mengers
A play by John Logan
Starring Jodi Stevens
Directed by Kevin Connors
Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Stage Managing: Jim Schilling
Music Theatre of Connecticut
February 24-March 5, 2017