Monday, August 3, 2015

Theater Review: I'll Eat You Last, A Chat with Sue Mengers

Karen Murphy. Photo: Courtesy of TheaterWorks
I’ll Eat You Last Doesn’t Whet the Appetite
By Lauren Yarger
Any idea of who Sue Mengers is, besides being the person with whom we are invited to chat during the presentation of I’ll Eat You Last at TheaterWorks?

She was one of the powerhouse talent agents in Hollywood during the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s and represented names such as Julie Harris, Gene Hackman and Barbra Streisand.

Women weren’t a force in the agent industry back then (and arguably still aren’t), so the smart, funny, foul-mouthed Mengers was quite a sensation. Playwright John Logan (Red) fills 80 minutes with Mengers chatting away about her experiences with some of these star names while lamenting her decline in the industry as she awaits a call from Barbra who fired her that day.

Karen Murphy (who recently was seen in Goodspeed’s Guys and Dolls) plays the two-fisted-smoking, cursing “maker-of-stars” who jokes that the title of her memoir should be called “I’ll Eat You Last, A Cannibal Love Story.”

“If you can’t say something nice about someone . . . come sit by me,” the agent laughs.

The problem is that we don’t buy Murphy in the role. She seems too nice to convince us that she really would poach clients from other agents or block a producer in his driveway until he gives her client a shot at a big movie role. She was more convincing, and impressed a number of us, as the uptight Salvation Army general in Guys and Dolls.

Director Don Stephenson (who also directed that Goodspeed production of Guys and Dolls) never helps Murphy develop the necessary offensive, over-the-top personality which seems as uncomfortable for her as Costume Designer Gregory A. Poplyk’s loose-fitting kaftan which she constantly adjusts. When the play ran on Broadway in 2013, the main box office drive came from seeing Bette Midler in the role. If anyone can pull off over-the-top, it’s this actress and she got a lot of laughs, many of them just because of the way she delivered a line.

There are a few laughs here, to be sure. An  audience member is selected to come up onto John Coyne’s living room set highlighted by the Hollywood sign in the background and this generates some fun a couple of times too.

Truth is, though, that the play is most interesting if you know who the late Mengers was. Details about her personal life are few, though she does tell us about learning how to make friends as a young immigrant child who didn’t speak English and includes a few memories of her beginnings in the entertainment industry as a secretary. The offerings aren’t enough to give us a full picture of her motivations or how she was able to pick a star out of the crowd, however.

If you’re not a Sue Mengers’ fan, you still might find this play interesting if you really are excited about celebrity gossip from decades ago or tidbits about what life behind the scenes really were like in the heyday of Hollywood.  If not, I’ll Eat You Last likely will fail to whet your appetite.

Catch it through Aug, 23 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays: 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays: 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. Tickets $15-$65; 860-527-7838; www.theaterworkshartford.org.

Special dates:
  • Pay What You Can Wednesday Aug. 5
  • Talk Back Tuesdays Aug 4, 11 and 18

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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