Fort Worth — Gossip is a dish best served…funny. And Hollywood’s first female super-agent Sue Mengers could be damn funny dishing it up—even when it was you on the end of her fork.
At the height of her Tinseltown power in the 1960s and 1970s, Mengers, a self-proclaimed “Jewish princess” who fell in love with the movies as an immigrant girl from Germany, outgunned the guys and charted the career paths of such A-listers as Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, Christopher Walken, Michael Caine, Ryan O’Neal, Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse, Cher, and Barbra Streisand—who was not just her biggest “get” ever, but a friend from the earliest days of both their careers.
Mengers’ Beverly Hills dinner parties were a hot ticket—a table for 12 that included Sue’s clients and more: Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Angelica Houston, Lorne Michaels, Elton John, Mel Brooks, Bette Midler, Sting, Francis Ford Coppola, Warren Beatty, Sidney Poitier. The only rule? The guests had to be famous. “Honey, my own mother couldn’t get in here if she was standing outside in the rain!”
You might know Mengers without knowing it, in fact: it’s said she was the model for characters in The Last of Sheila and Myra Breckenridge; and when Woody Allen’s sneeze vaporizes a party’s worth of cocaine in the movie Annie Hall—well, critic and writer Rex Reed says Allen is riffing on something that happened at Sue’s place.
It’s all chronicled by (who better?) Mengers herself in John Logan’s almost-solo show I’ll Eat You Last: a Chat with Sue Mengers at Amphibian Stage Productions. (The “almost” incorporates one audience member drafted to serve Sue for an amusing moment or two.) The character is played to the snarky limit by New York-based actress Karen Murphy, who lounges on the sofa like a thwarted lioness who’d rather be running down a deer. Barefoot in designer Brittny Mahan’s bejeweled caftan, with a drink in one hand and a joint in the other, Murphy is all flashing teeth and biting tell-tales as Mengers waits for a vital phone call from Streisand. (The photos in this review are from a 2015 production in Hartford.)
In the meantime, she’s willing to talk to the peasants (er, audience) about her triumphant rise from keyhole-listening secretary to Hollywood power broker. Not bad, she says, for a child who learned English watching Bette Davis and other hard-boiled movie dolls. “That’s why I still talk like a goddamn Warner Brothers second lead.” Feeling out of place, emotionally abandoned by her parents, Mengers grew up to put together the family of her dreams—all stars—and threw her whole heart into doing her best for them. I’ll Eat You Last isn’t an in-depth character study, for sure, but it does give us hints of the human heart—and the hurt—that throbbed under Sue Menger’s sparkly surface.
For someone who doesn’t give a flip about movie stars and their stories (and what kind of mutant would that be?), this fast-moving 90 minutes might be a bit much. But really, don’t we all want to hear this stuff? What happened when Mengers first heard Streisand sing. How Gene Hackman scored The French Connection (Sue) and Fay Dunaway got Chinatown (more Sue). How she lost her Chanel shoes chasing Sissy Spacek to her Virginia “mud farm”—and why Steve McQueen ruined Ali McGraw’s career. (Hint: he was an asshole.)
Director Krista Scott can add I’ll Eat You Last to a string of her well-constructed portraits of strong women, both as director (Venus in Fur, Exit, Pursued by a Bear, Steel Magnolias) and actress (Wit). And on the technical side, scenic designer Michael Skinner’s Beverly Hills living room set gets the details right: the HOLLYWOOD sign glimpsed through the sheers, the powder-blue phone on the sofa, the pencils and Rolodex poised for action on a nearby gold-leafed table. And, of course, the framed photos of Sue Mengers with her “twinklies.”
I’ll Eat You Last (that’s as affectionate a promise as a cannibal—like Sue?—ever makes) isn’t deep, but it’s fun. Playwright Logan, who won a Tony for his complex portrayal of painter Mark Rothko in Red, here keeps things simple, giving us a well-crafted “best of” Mengers (1932-2011), building a breathing woman from the quips and cracks she left behind.
There’s a button that says: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Sue Mengers—stealing stars from competitors, working every room, cursing at movie moguls—would surely have agreed.