“I’ll Eat You Last”—Why Should We Care About Sue Mengers?

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Photo by Lanny Nagler
Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

I’ll Eat You Last, the one person play now at TheaterWorks through Aug.23, is the cotton candy of plays.

So depending on how you feel about cotton candy, you may enjoy it as a guilty pleasure OR you may feel as though you have wasted your time.

The “I” in the play is Sue Mengers.  Sue Who you may ask?

Mengers was one of the first of the super agents in Hollywood.  Her client list from the 1960s to 80s included a number of people who she helped propel to A-listers:  Gene Hackman, Candace Bergen, Barbra Streisand, Mike Nichols, Faye Dunaway, Brian de Palma and many, many more.

Karen Murphy as Sue Mengers. Photo by Lanny Nagler
Karen Murphy as Sue Mengers. Photo by Lanny Nagler

She was brash and profane and drank and smoked (cigarettes and pot) incessantly.  Her star fell when a smoother more corporate type of agent emerged as Michael Orvitz’s Creative Artist Agency took flight.

I’ll Eat You Last is Mengers dishing with the audience.  She starts by insulting us – we are only worth her attention until it is time to get ready for her dinner party and we are definitely not important enough to be invited.  Plus, she tells us that she is expecting a call from Barbra Streisand.  Streisand’s people have fired Mengers that day but said that Barbra will call.  Mengers was with Streisand at the very beginning of her career.

From there we get an overview of her life.  She was born in Germany and her parents and she (they were Jewish) saw the handwriting on the wall and escaped in the 1930s.  They settled in Utica, New York, and though unsure of herself and her English, she forced herself to make friends.  Her father committed suicide in a Times Square hotel – she makes a joke about the location – and she and her mother relocated to the Bronx.

She became obsessed with the movies – it was how she learned English – and to the end of her life, it was the only subject that interested her.  After a brief attempt at acting, she got a job as a receptionist at William Morris Agency.  As the cliché goes, the rest is history.

The problem with this 80-minute play is that it is hard to get really interested in Mengers.  She displays little interest in anything except in gossip about the movies, and we see nothing but a façade of the woman. She was ambitious, aggressive, and able to compete in this very testosterone-ladened world.  But we never get anything more than a minimal hint that there is a living, breathing, feeling woman beneath that surface.  Her decline has to have been upsetting to her, yet she never lets on.

Bette Middler played the role on Broadway and her persona blended with Menger’s.  Both are ambitious, brash, profane women.  It was hard to know where one began and the other left off.

At TheaterWorks,  Karen Murphy plays Mengers.  In reality she looks nothing like the character; she is taller and thinner than the zoftig Mengers.  She is animated and maintains the coolness – dare I say coldness – that seems to part of the persona.  This is not a warm and cuddly person.  But Murphy succumbs to a number of physical gestures that are repeated endlessly.  It is a difficult role for an actress because Mengers is anchored on the couch for the entire play.  She even gets an audience member to get her a joint and later a drink.

About half way through the play, I was tempted to start counting how many times she did certain gestures.  That is a reflection of how uninvolved I was in the play itself.  Nothing about the performance, directed by Don Stephenson, moved me or made me think that the play was better than it is or that the character is more interesting.

The set by John Coyne is simple: her living room with a couch, a coffee table, a rug and a bar to the right.  An effective touch was the reverse “Hollywood” sign in the back.  The single costume by Gregory A. Poplyk – a caftan – looked decidedly like it was purchased at Walmarts.  Certainly not the quality I would expect Mengers to wear.

I’ll Eat You Last is enjoyable if your idea of a fun evening is listening to some gossip about some Hollywood personalities of decades ago.  Unfortunately, this tale of a girl’s rise from unsure child to a bigger-than-life success could have been so much more.

I’ll Eat You Last is at TheaterWorks through Aug. 23. 233 Pearl St., Hartford.  For tickets call 860-527-7838.

Karen Murphy as Sue Mengers. Photo by Lanny Nagler
Karen Murphy as Sue Mengers. Photo by Lanny Nagler

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