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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Broadway Beaverhausen: You'll Eat Bette Midler Up

Entering the Booth Theatre, where Bette Midler is appearing on previews in I'll Eat You Last (opening April 24), the first thing you'll see is this notice on the stage curtain:  WARNING This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, & gossip. You'll not be disappointed in that promise.

What happened to matinees' blue-haired old ladies? Our sold-out Sunday afternoon crowd was pretty hep, smartly dressed and not too unlike the evening crowd, without a blue rinse in sight.

And what was not to love once Bette Midler took to the stage as Sue Mengers? It was the perfect play for her to tackle, in my opinion, and she was clearly having fun with this 90-minute, no-intermission,  no-holds-barred, one-woman show.

Mengers was the high-powered Hollywood super-agent who died in 2011 due to complications from a series of strokes and pneumonia at age 79, after ruling the Hollywood roost of the '60s and '70s. I'll Eat You Last (the title derived from a throw-away line in the show) is set in her living room in 1981. Playwright Josh Logan (Tony winner for Red, a drama about artist Mark Rothko) certainly supplies Ms Midler with delicious dialogue that she sinks her teeth into with great relish. Gossip? Oh, my dears! This is dish on a grand scale! "Trash with flash" as the Divine Miss M might put it. It's a thrill ride for fans.

The play's Miss M(engers) has much to share with us about Julie Harris, Gene Hackman, Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway, who were clients, as well as Sissy Spacek, Diana Ross, Jane Fonda and Steve McQueen as she remains on her couch, holding court. The anecdotes (which I will not spoil by divulging here) are boldly delivered in high style and Bette is at her outrageous best, making them work with trademark delivery. There are times when her Ms Mengers merges with Ms Midler's Divine Miss M and Sophie Tucker!

Buddy B and friend Tracey (photo by Merv)
There's a special irony when Bette Midler, in character, discusses Sue's friendship with Barbra Streisand. There's a twinkle of mischief in her eyes during these moments. Sue recalls seeing Streisand for the first time when her gay friends brought her to the bar, The Lion's Den, on 9th Street in the West Village. (Streisand was discovered when she then moved to the Bon Soir on 8th Street. I lived around the corner from both these landmarks for many years.) The two women bonded, were friends for many years, but eventually parted ways via events well detailed in the play.

The super-sedentary Sue Mengers is like the Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, referenced in the play. Instead of a hookah, she has her roach clip and joint in hand, and never rises from her couch until the show's finale. In fact, she commands an audience member to come onstage to fetch things for her (joints, wine). She treats him grandly with charm and, alternately, scorn. But it is a brilliant and golden moment of interaction with the audience. Be careful where you sit.

I'll Eat You Last was in every way a total delight and Bette's delivery and facial gestures priceless. The packed house frequently responded with applause and laughter. Bette ad-libbed brilliantly when necessary but delivered a most disciplined performance that was hilarious yet poignant in a style all her own.

In the end, Sue Mengers gives some final advice to her audience, then stumbles off, stoned, to the sound of Barbra's "Stony End."  "I knew her when she was Bar-ba-ra," Bette's Mengers says.

Directed by Joe Mantello (Other Desert Cities) with great pinache. Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone is especially expressive and noteworthy.

Highly recommended and on a limited run until June 30 (Gay Pride Day in NYC).








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