BWW Reviews: I'LL EAT YOU LAST at Salt Lake Acting Company
Seeing a virtuoso solo performance in a single-character show can leave an indelible impression. I can still remember many years ago watching Patrick Stewart in "A Christmas Carol," in which he played 40-plus Dickens roles. And a few months after seeing a spirited Lori Guiver perform as a singe character, Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst," Lori became my wife.
I will long remember Camille G. Van Wagoner's performance in Salt Lake Acting Company's irresistibly delicious production of "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers."
But "A Christmas Carol" and "The Belle of Amherst" this play is not.
Sue Mengers headed ICM -- or more officially, International Creative Management, a star-heavy agency with clients that included a few lead players you might have heard of, people like Candice Bergen, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, Michael Caine, Bob Fosse, Mike Nichols, Ryan O'Neal, Burt Reynolds and Sidney Lumet.
Just like the legendary talent agent Mengers, Van Wagoner is brilliant, schmoozy, and devastatingly funny.
Van Wagoner is a superb master chef in this smorgasbord of insider Hollywood gossip and delectable tales of Tinseltown's finest -- or "twinklies," as the super agents calls the star casts of her legendary dinner parties.
"For you civilians out there," Van Wagoner explains in character as Mengers, "CAA is Creative Artists Agency, the fastest rising of the so-called New Wave agencies; the shape of things to come we are all breathlessly promised. They've built the agency on a puritanical screed of monkish sublimation of the individual to the corporate entity, to quote their mentor, Stalin. ... Oh did I say Stalin? I meant Mike Ovitz."
That's just one of the highly quotable one-liners in the 80-minute play by John Logan, whose "Red" won six Tony Awards including Best Play.
A sensational aspect of Van Wagoner's performance is how she stares directly into the spellbound audience members' eyes, making us feel like welcome guests all the while also communicating that we are "civilians," who would never be welcome into Mengers' home. As she explains, "My own mother couldn't get in here if she were standing outside in the rain." (One of her favorite guests was Elton John because "he eats everything but pussy.")
"I'll Eat You Last" relates how Mengers used her own car to block director William Friedkin's driveway until he agreed at least to consider a pre-stardom Gene Hackman for "The French Connection," which later earned Hackman and Friedkin Oscar trophies. And there's a tremendous bluffing contest with producer Robert Evans to get Faye Dunaway into "Chinatown" over Jane Fonda. Mengers claims that Fonda turned down the lead role of Evelyn in the 1974 film, which ended up being a defining role for Dunaway. But director Roman Polanski had never really offered her the part; it was written for Dunaway.
But the play's tension comes from an anticipated phone call from Barbra Streisand, one of Menger's oldest clients and dearest friends -- "I knew her when she still had the other 'ah"- who has just fired her. Or rather, Streisand's lawyers -- "her microstate of serious Jews who joined arms and bottle-danced their way to the speaker-phone."
La Streisand has just left Mengers to join CAA, because the agent was dead set against Streisand developing her dream project of "Yentl" -- a film Mengers disparages as Streisand's "cross-dressing Jew movie." Mengers is waiting for the "can't we still be friends?" followup phone call from the star.
With buoyant direction by Robin Wilks-Dunn, Van Wagoner's tour-de-force performance in "I'll Eat You Last" is not-to-be-missed.