There’s something both unconvincing and yet utterly fascinating about Miriam Margolyes’ performance as Sue Mengers, the legendary agent to a wonder of Hollywood stars through the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, including Gene Hackman, Faye Dunaway, Sidney Lumet and many, many more. It’s not that Mengers — via American playwright John Logan, writer of the Mark Rothko bio-piece Red (2009) — is in any sense beyond Margolyes. Far from it. The 73-year-old is one of the world’s great character actors. But there’s an undercurrent of scepticism here — and perhaps in her very being – which undermines the overwhelming cosiness of the script.
The one-woman show was originally written for Bette Midler, who performed it on Broadway and later in Los Angeles, and it’s essentially a tribute, a celebration of Mengers’ tenacity, vision and eccentricity. It’s also a kind of encomium for agents, or at least for those industrious old-school agents who helped make the “American New Wave” of the 1970s. I’ll Eat You Last is nostalgic for the way the Hollywood machine used to work, before the agents all became faceless “moonies” and effects-driven blockbusters changed the game completely. Margolyes is starry enough — or twinkly, as Mengers, who died in 2011, would have said — to match this larger-than-life Bel-Air dealmaker; but she brings something rough and unsentimental to her performance. ”The skin of dreams is so thin,” says Mengers. “You poke one little hole and all the air hisses out.” Well, Margolyes rather mischievously starts prodding at the myth of Mengers right from the start. The scene is Sue Mengers’ living room. It’s 1981 and she has just been fired by her number one client, Barbra Streisand. Or rather by Streisand’s lawyers. Mengers’ star has been on the wane for a while, so the news is not unexpected, but it stings nonetheless. Sue and Barbra go way back. It was Mengers who discovered the future best-selling music artist and funny girl in a dingy New York gay bar. Barbra has promised to call at 9 and explain.
Mengers loves the business of show business too much to just walk away. And seeing as how we’re all in her living room, and she’s got nothing else to do but wait for Babs to call, what the hell, she might as well share a few of the secrets of being a great agent. Logan’s text is a mix of industry anecdotes, pearls of professional wisdom and more-or-less straight biography, stirred together with a great mass of film names and actor names. This is a feast for fans of Hollywood trivia. There’s a similar sort of insider atmosphere to Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias (MTC, 2009). And it flows together very neatly (even if the names mean nothing to you) with simple narrative lines that give a bold, almost heroic aspect to this portrait of a plump Jewish princess who made it just about as big as a talent agent can make it. Then there are the punch lines and the tirades. Do you know why Elton John is the easiest dinner guest ever? Or what Steve McQueen was really like? Sue Mengers was famously filthy. Margolyes boggles and mugs through the gossip and invective, always smoking or sipping, eyes rolling as she sinks deeper and deeper into the sofa. The worse the joke, the more she enjoys it.
The way she peers over the top of Sue’s big tinted glasses — very sly– makes it seem as through Miriam herself, twinkly eyed, is sneaking a peak from behind the mask, as if she remains distant from Mengers’ obsessions, and subversive to Logan’s purpose. Despite the feeling that Margolyes is holding back, her voice is strong and constant, speaking volumes of charisma and optimism, except when the phone rings. Mengers, who emigrated from Germany when she was eight, claims to have learnt English almost entirely from the movies. “That’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead,” she explains. Margolyes, a brilliant voice artist, makes this sound as fascinating as it should, lingering over the occasional odd combination — “canteen” or “conclave” or “purring seduction” — and bawling out the frequent obscenities and slurs. For Mengers, everything which counts is surface and glitter. Politics is a forbidden topic of conversation. All must be profoundly superficial. Substance isn’t important, only its representation. She is, after all, a representative: it’s her job. She speaks loftily of helping her clients build the dream they want the world to see, piece by piece, part by part, and likening the mysterious quality of glamour to an immortal soul. Logan and director Dean Bryant do their best to give it poignancy. In the show’s quieter moments they almost get there. But then there’s always Miriam Margolyes centre stage in a turquoise caftan, smirking with her eyes — and all the air comes rushing out.
Posted : 7th November 2014