Agent provocateur

Posted on 15 Apr 2016 at 7:25am

Super-agent Sue Mengers comes to life in the gossipy ‘I’ll Eat You Last’

01-Karen-Murphy-photo-by-Lanny-Nagler

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

If your only exposure to Hollywood agents is Ari Gold from Entourage, and you thought that was a little over-played, well, you’ve never heard of Sue Mengers. She was an agent of the old-school variety — hustler, cajoler, smoked like a chimney — even though, as a woman in a man’s world, she was about as new-school as you could get in Tinseltown. She started with one client, the stage star Julie Harris, and eventually represented the box office powerhouses of the 1970s: Streisand and Dunaway. MacGraw and Hackman. Burt and Babs.

By the 1980s, though, styles had changed. Her clients — and her influence — fell out of fashion. She bled stars, though continued to make a living representing B-listers. “They survive,” Mengers snarls from behind a joint in her faux Pucci-print kaftan from the living room of her Beverly Hills manse. No need to be bitter. But that doesn’t mean a sharp tongue isn’t warranted.

Screen shot 2016-04-14 at 9.27.03 AMJohn Logan — who seems as at-ease scripting action-adventure movies (Gladiator, Skyfall), period TV horror shows (Penny Dreadful) and thoughtful plays (Red) — turned his sights on Mengers in the delightfully devilish one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last. It was a smash two B’way seasons ago with Bette Midler on the sofa, campily spewing her dishy gossip to an audience of starry-eyed gay boys. But while the production now at Amphibian in Fort Worth (a regional premiere) doesn’t boast La Bette as its lead, actress Karen Murphy more than distinguishes herself in the best way imaginable: She makes us forget about the star who played her, and think about the stars she knew.

That’s a bonus in such a tart, snappy celebrifest as this, even if it does target more classic gay icons named Cybill and Elton, instead of contemporary pretenders with names like Kardashian and Minaj. The play, like the subject, is old-school entertainment, packaged with a bitchy bow. Unwrapping it is as exhilarating as being a kid on Christmas morning.

It’s 1981, and Sue has just been fired by Barbra after a disastrous movie deal involving Streisand and Mengers’ own husband, an artsy film director best remembered for his flop All Night Long. Losing Streisand — who basically made Sue’s career — meant a hoard of disgruntled actors likewise took flight. Through it all, if we are to believe what we see, Mengers refused to burn bridges … except the ones that Logan has her set ablaze in this extended monologue. (The main targets of her withering wit: Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway.) The problem is almost that’s there’s not enough venom in the play.
You yearn for it to get even sassier, the way screenwriter William Goldman has done in a series of tell-alls about Hollywood hypocrisy. At 70 breezy minutes, the play is almost over before it begins. It’s the only standup comic adage to leave ’em wanting more.

Still, what’s there is choice, with Logan deftly name dropping while making rude comparisons of stars to Nazi Josef Goebbels and explaining Mengers’ code of ethics (“1. Never lie to a client. 2. Never tell the truth”) while simultaneously presenting a kind of feminist mini-history. Sue … Hillary … it’s all the same.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 15, 2016.

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