Broadway: Bette Midler serves up Hollywood dish in 'I'll Eat You Last'

NEW YORK — Almost none of us would have been invited to one of the famous parties at Sue Mengers' swishy pad in "The Hills of Beverly." Those networking opportunities — wherein Faye Dunaway could get cast in "Chinatown" between appetizer and desert, or the genial director William Friedkin could be leaned upon, on a client's behalf, over cocktails — were reserved for those greater mortals of the firmament. The "twinklies," the Hollywood superagent Mengers liked to call them. Of course, gossip never has been constrained by social class. But at chez Sue, the rich twinklies of the 1970s and '80s dished with the cold dishes.

There are two possible responses to such faux-intimate Hollywood parties — and the one you favor likely will determine your response to "I'll Eat You Last," the shamelessly gossipy, one-woman tribute to Mengers penned by John Logan, directed by Joe Mantello and starring the redoubtable Bette Midler. You might find such characters and events indulgent, insufferable, trivial, even preening — the consequence of too much money sloshing around the wrong priorities. In that case, you'll have had your fill of the bon mots, the slight soupcons of Hollywood back story, the insider whatever, long before the curtain has fallen on Midler, even though the show is a scant 90 minutes. Or — and this category would likely contain most those inclined to buy a costly ticket for such a show — you could eat up this stuff as if you were a star-struck caterer used to listening at the door, perennially eager to feed on whatever morsel of personal revelation might come your way.

Despite the way it revolves around the heart-stopping question of whether or not Barbra will call, this deeply sentimental piece of Broadway theater does have a modestly broader purpose. As Logan writes it, Mengers is the last of the breed, a self-made individual who did business like a knowledgeable but happy-go-lucky butcher in a small town filled with meat lovers: one client at a time, with plenty of respect for the individual and many laughs along the way. As in many other business, the big, cold, efficient corporations (CAA, et al.) have taken over this world of celebrity representation, squeezing out efficiencies but, so this play contends, coming replete with gray executives incapable of colorful conversation at one of Mengers' parties. Not that they ever would have found themselves on the guest list. Too declasse.

In a weird way, this piece of theater, despite being created by wealthy individuals, all of whom profit very nicely from these big agencies, is actually a plea for Old Hollywood, a mom-and-pop (please!) kind of place where people had fun. And made money, sure, sure. But did we mention the fun?

Midler does not get off the couch during this monologue — one might call this the "Last Agent on the Couch Play." Apparently, this is an accurate take on Mengers' modus operandi at home, or so say those who might have been at one of those parties. Mantello shrewdly makes a thing of it: Midler, whose bona fides in this arena are unimpeachable, even has a guy up from the audience get her a drink and a joint. But it sure as heck imposes some theatrical limitations, especially if you're in the audience and you have a head blocking you, just so. Not only does Midler not get up from the couch, she even stays in the same section of the couch. Dishing.

Midler, as you might imagine, gives good dish. Superlative dish, even. There will be some for whom 90 minutes in the presence of an outsize character playing an outsize character will be a most delightful evening, leaving ample time for post-show martinis. That's the appeal of this pain-free bit of cannibalism. Meanwhile, the rest of America, the one without the invite, has to worry about more substantial matters.

"I'll Eat You Last" plays on Broadway at the Booth Theatre, 222. W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200 or illeatyoulast.com

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