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Review - I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers

"Gossip is the lube by which this town slips it in."

That's about the cleanest quip I can quote you from John Logan's dishy I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers; a ninety minute solo piece that turns a visit with one of Hollywood's first superagents into something resembling a stand-up comedy act, except the star stays seated on her comfy couch all night.

That star, of course, is Bette Midler; not in concert, but acting on Broadway for the first time since she last told Tevye to ditch the matchmaker because she wanted to marry Motel.

Not planning a brunch, but nevertheless lounging in her caftan, the conceit of the play has the woman who became one of the left coast's most powerful career-molders ("Why be a king when you can be a kingmaker?") finding her own career a bit on the skids. It's 1981 and after already losing some high-profile clients, she's been informed by lawyers that her crown jewel, Barbra Streisand, will no longer be requiring her services. Ensconced in designer Scott Pask's sumptuous rendering of Mengers' Beverly Hills home (It used to belong to Zsa Zsa Gabor, she tells us.) she waits for a phone call from the star herself.

Her love for movies developed when she was a little girl, learning English from Hollywood offerings after her Jewish family escaped to America from Hitler's Germany. ("That's why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead.") The risk-taking attitude she acquired from dealing with anti-Semitic neighborhood kids served her well in her climb up the William Morris ladder.

As far as the dirt goes, there are plenty of anecdotes involving her professional dealings with names like Gene Hackman, Sissy Spacek, Faye Dunaway, Ali McGraw and Steve McQueen. And the names of successful films Ms. Streisand turned down act as punch lines.

But I'll Eat You Last is far more interesting when she's describing how her profession fits into the off-screen machinations of the industry, particularly when describing the exclusive dinner parties she hosts, where alcohol-loosened tongues provide vital deal-making information.

As directed by Joe Mantello, Midler slips perfectly into the role of a bawdy fast-talking quipster. Her comic sense is impeccable and her ingratiating star quality is the kind that sucks you in with the promise of a good time. The blonde wig and oversized glasses she wears are authentically Mengers, even though they do make her look like a decadent Gloria Steinem.

Oh, and if you're a good-looking gentleman sitting near the front... be prepared.

Photo of Bette Midler by Richard Termine.

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The Constitution is the only document you get more knowledge of it, the drunker you get. Why? It was written during a four month drunken binge. The bills from those days show thousands of dollars in wine, port, beer. They were all drinking.

Colin Quinn's politically sharp blue collar deconstruction of our national blueprint, Unconstitutional, is 70 hilarious minutes of plainspoken wit. In these days when the most relevant interpretation of The Bill of Rights seems up for grabs, Quinn fuels the debate with the kind of common sense even Thomas Paine wouldn't have concocted.

Beginning with the preamble ("' order to form a more perfect union.' Not perfect. That's fine for other people. 'More perfect.'") and working his way through the amendments ("Piss Christ? Asshole move, but it's covered.") Quinn's fast and furious rant, directed by Rebecca A. Trent, is enhanced by projections of the historic text, but you won't want to remove your attention from the comic's keen observations.

Though he sometimes tangents into questionably relevant gags involving pop culture celebs ("If Bruce Springsteen was really the working man's musician why does he have a four and a half hour concert on a Tuesday night?") Quinn is at his funniest when delving into subjects like the difference between free speech and accepted speech, the effectiveness of American presidents in proportion to how ugly they were and why Barack Obama feels it necessary to make jokes about himself.

As far as the right to bear arms is concerned... well, despite describing himself as "pro-gun" he isn't exactly pro-NRA. But you're better off hearing that from Quinn himself.

Photo of Colin Quinn by Mike Lavoie.


It wouldn't be fair to say the new Broadway production of Horton Foote's beautiful drama The Trip To Bountiful misses the mark, because director Michael Wilson was obviously aiming at a different target. Less than eight years ago Lois Smith picked up every major award an Off-Broadway actress can get for starring in Signature Theatre Company's emotionally thick production of the play. But for Cicely Tyson's return to Broadway after 30 years, Wilson seems to be going more for cozy warmth and charm. Moving pathos is replaced by cute laughs. If you've never seen a production of the play before there are plenty of reasons to expect to have a fine evening. Wilson, after all, has developed an excellent reputation for interpreting the plays of Mr. Foote, having mounted exceptional New York productions of The Day Emily Married, Dividing The Estate and The Orphans' Home Cycle. But if you're aware of how enthrallingly powerful The Trip To Bountiful can be, his new staging might just not be enough.

Tyson plays elderly Carrie Watts, who has not seen her home town of Bountiful in twenty years and, given her current situation, will most likely never set foot again on The Farm where she grew up. It's 1953 and her days are mostly spent sitting in the living room, which doubles as her bedroom, of her son Ludie's (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) small Houston apartment, looking out the window and watching the traffic race by while singing hymns to comfort herself.

An illness had kept Ludie out of work for two years, depleting his savings, and his new job doesn't pay enough to support himself and his wife, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams) without the help of Carrie's monthly pension. Needing her money, but frustrated by her continual presence, Jessie Mae tends to treat Carrie like a child, scolding her for running in the house and ordering her not to sing in her presence. ("You know what those hymns do to my nerves.")

So when her next pension check arrives in the mail, Carrie takes the opportunity to hide it until her chance to run off to the bus depot and buy her ticket home. With Ludie and Jessie Mae on her trail, fearing she might want to make good on her stated desire to live in Bountiful for the rest of her days, taking away the pension money they depend on, Carrie must fight her failing health and fading memory to reach her goal.

Tyson's Carrie is a feisty woman who projects impish charm as she plots her getaway while pretending to adhere to Jessie Mae's rules of the house. And while her humorous performance gets plenty of laughs, what's missing is any hint of the devastating loneliness the woman must be suffering as she spends her time separated from the place where she feels at home without anyone of her own age to connect with. The scene where Carrie begs not to be taken back to Houston when she's just made it to the town next to Bountiful makes little impact because it isn't preceded by much of an emotional foundation. Just before that moment comes a spot where, from what I've read and heard, audiences have been consistently singing along to Tyson's choruses of "Blessed Assurance." Many were in full voice the night I attended and while the star wasn't exactly waving a baton and yelling, "Everybody!," the staging rather slyly doesn't exactly discourage the audience participation. It's a memorable moment for Cicely Tyson but it doesn't serve Carrie Watts very well.

Gooding and Williams play Ludie and Jessie Mae in a Walter Mitty fashion, with the henpecked husband finally standing up to the domineering wife before the final curtain. What we don't get is a strong sense of Ludie's feelings of emasculation for being an adult still having to depend on his mother for income, nor Jessie Mae's frustration in being denied the kind of life she expected to marry into.

The production's most pleasing moments come in a scene featuring the fine stage veteran Arthur French as a helpful bus employee and in the sweet simplicity of the scenes between Tyson and Condola Rashad, who does lovely work as the young wife who Carrie meets in the bus station and becomes her travel buddy. Since the play was not written with the intention of Carrie and her family to be played by black actors, subtle, unscripted reminders of the times are made by signs in the bus depot designating segregated sections and by having the pair riding in the back seat.

But the non-traditional casting sticks out when Tom Wopat enters as the sheriff looking to put a halt to Carrie's journey and bring her back to Ludie. The time, place and racial differences between them make the white man's polite and respectfully cordial manner when addressing the elderly black woman seem unexpected. His attitude is certainly not an impossibility, but something seems missing without at least an acknowledgement that this would not be considered the norm.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Cicely Tyson and Condola Rashad; Bottom: Vanessa Williams and Cuba Gooding, Jr.

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