BWW Reviews: I'LL EAT YOU LAST in Hartford
TheaterWorks in Hartford is closing out its 29th season with the one-woman talk fest based on one of Hollywood's first female super agents: Sue Mengers. "Gossip is mother's milk to me," she says, and, indeed, the performance is an 80 minute dish session without intermission.
You have to know something about Hollywood in the 1970s and 80s to appreciate this show. If Gene Hackman, Julie Harris, Ali MacGraw and the stars of that era mean nothing to you, this orgy of celebrity name-dropping may leave you unmoved. This is true even though Sue Mengers' life was an extraordinary one: a Holocaust refugee at 8 whose father committed suicide after the family relocated to Utica, New York, she climbed into the power elite of showbiz. By all accounts, she was quite a character: a pot-smoking, hard-driving, wheeler-dealer with a sailor's mouth who could be charming when it served her clients.
Playwright John Logan met her just once, toward the end of her life, when she was famous for the dinner parties she hosted. Logan's most produced play is RED, a terrific, dynamic discussion of art and meaning and masculinity centered around painter Mark Rothko. By contrast, while this script has some great one-liners, it is quite static and lacks the interiority or arc or cultural scope that might make us care more about Mengers' decline.
The show takes place as Sue waits for a phone call from one of her most famous clients: Barbra Streisand. Streisand is just the latest in a string of greats to let Mengers go. Despite the fact that she'll shortly host a dinner party with stars ('twinklies,' as she calls them), Mengers is moored to the couch, trying to salvage a sense of self-worth with memories, her control reduced to a debate about whether she should pick up after two rings or three.
Actor Karen Murphy, dressed in a sequined caftan, draining drink after drink, smoking both joint and cigarette, brings the necessary energy and brittle charm to the role. Her breath control is up to the long clauses of description and insult that the character favors. The script hints at feelings, from time to time--Mengers' love for her Belgian husband, the fierceness with which she fights for her clients (like a 'valkyrie in heat') as linked to her father's suicide--but never really lets us in to her world, just as, at her dinner parties, she will not permit talk of anything BUT showbiz. It's all about gossip and superficialities and powerplays and even now, as she senses she is being pushed aside, she can't go anywhere else.
As directed by Don Stephenson, the actor is stuck (literally) on that couch. The one bit of movement in the piece comes with two touches of audience interaction, which must give the play a slightly different flavor each night. It's to the actor's credit that she can manage this with command and charm. But it's not enough to make the evening seem like anything but a visit to a zoo: here's a look at the outside of an exotic character who may be an endangered species. It left me feeling a little sad, as zoos so often do. That may be Logan's intent. The show runs in Hartford through August 23.
photo by Lenny Nagler