I’ll Eat You Last is subtitled “A Chat With Sue Mengers,” who was the top-tier agent to some of Hollywood’s starriest stars — or, as she calls them here, “my twinklies”; those twinklies included Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Gore Vidal, Nick Nolte, Michael Caine and, most important, Barbra Streisand. And a chat is essentially what this production at Edge is. Lounging on a couch in a turquoise caftan edged with glittering stones in a room tastefully and opulently decorated in the style of the early ’80s, when the play is set, the queen of agents talks to us. But first she makes it clear that we’re intensely privileged to be in her presence: An invitation to one of her legendary dinner parties can make an actor’s career.
Author John Logan won a Tony for Red, a brilliant play about artist Mark Rothko given a brilliant regional premiere at Curious in 2012. The two plays have little in common: Red is an expansive exploration of an artist’s soul, a dissection of what art is and how we see it, while I’ll Eat You features a woman in an essentially superficial milieu who frowns on serious talk (“Is there anything more dreary than Cambodia?”) and sneers about Vanessa Redgrave pontificating while “downing glass after glass of my best Veuve Clicquot like a good socialist.” But both protagonists share an overweening narcissism; both have massive egos that ultimately create equally massive impacts on their very different worlds. And Mengers practices her own forms of art. Over the course of the evening, she demonstrates precisely the mixture of bullying, charm and indirect threat she uses to persuade directors to take on her clients, or clients to accept movies that will further their careers.
You can tell Logan feels both admiration and respect for his subject. Mengers, who died in 2011, was arrogant and fame-obsessed, sometimes wasp-vicious, but she also had warmth, charm and an indomitable will. She describes her German family’s flight from Hitler and her sense of dislocation as a plump German-speaking kid in America, her mother’s coldness and her father’s suicide without a shred of sentimentality. “It was all pretty much like the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music, only without dreamy Christopher Plummer and all those not-up-to-their-usual-standard Rodgers and Hammerstein songs,” she says of the escape from Europe.
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Though the script represents a conversation, it doesn’t meander; it has shape and structure. At the beginning, Mengers tells us she has just been fired by Barbra Streisand’s lawyers, and this provides the evening’s emotional arc. More and more we come to understand just how devastating this betrayal is for her. Streisand and Mengers were like sisters, and Mengers had represented the star from the earliest days through some of her greatest triumphs. Now she waits for Streisand to call, explain, kvetch, reaffirm their friendship. Meanwhile, the play holds you fascinated. There’s a brief, hilarious moment of audience participation, tightly controlled by Mengers: She summons a woman on stage, tosses off a couple of orders, dismisses her with the contemptuous gift of a single chocolate. But the loss of Streisand is eating at her confidence. She senses that Hollywood is changing and her power fading as agenting becomes more corporate and less personal, and the quirky movies she admires are increasingly hard to make.
There’s plenty of dish, too — and it’s great stuff, particularly if you remember the stars Mengers represented. She talks about guiding Julie Harris, whom she admired, as Harris grew older and her career began to fade. She laments the loss of Ali MacGraw, swept into a life of subservience and domesticity by a bullying Steve McQueen just as her star was at its zenith.
You know you’re in for a terrific evening when a wonderfully smart and entertaining script like this is brought to life by the peerless Emma Messenger: You feel a constant vibrating tension between Mengers’s brittle theatricality and the depth that Messenger simply can’t help projecting. When she’s on stage, you want to know what she’s thinking; when she speaks, you lean in to listen for subtext. As Mengers, she’s sensual, wicked and funny as hell — and if her heart sometimes breaks a little, don’t even think of taking advantage. This woman doesn’t give an inch.