Hol­ly­wood glit­terati con­sumed with style in ‘I’ll Eat You Last’

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

There is a fa­mous anec­dote that per­fectly char­ac­ter­izes Sue Mengers, Hol­ly­wood’s first su­per-agent who rep­re­sented some of the sil­ver screen’s lead­ing lights in the 1970s and ’80s.

Mengers re­port­edly was on the phone with Bar­bra Streisand, per­haps the most glit­ter­ing of the glit­terati the agent rep­re­sented. Streisand was up­set and felt threat­ened by the Charles Man­son mur­ders, vic­tims of which in­cluded Sharon Tate, the ac­tress-wife of di­rec­tor Ro­man Polan­ski.

“Don’t worry, honey, stars aren’t be­ing mur­dered,” Mengers said. “Only fea­tured play­ers.”

Mengers was brash, crass and crude. She also was known for earn­ing mil­lions of dollars for her clients, an A-list that in­cluded Paul New­man, Steve McQueen, Robert Red­ford, Mick Jag­ger, Cher and oth­ers.

She was the first fe­male agent to emerge on the Hol­ly­wood scene, and her rise is chron­i­cled in I’ll Eat You Last, screen­writer John Lo­gan’s 2013 one-woman comedic homage to the Ger­man-Jewish im­mi­grant who took on all com­ers and gen­er­ally won.

Lo­cal the­ater com­pa­nies The­ater RED and the newly minted Un­ti­tled Pro­duc­tions are join­ing forces to pro­duce what prin­ci­pals be­lieve will be the Milwaukee pre­miere of Lo­gan’s 75-minute opus June 29 through July 1 at the Kimp­ton Jour­ney­man Ho­tel in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

The pro­duc­tion marks the start of The­ater RED’s sixth sea­son but is the first out­ing for Un­ti­tled Pro­duc­tion. Its founder Eric Welch serves as di­rec­tor.

It’s also the first one-woman show for Marcee Do­herty-Elst, The­ater RED’s co­founder.

Mengers “was a woman who was go­ing to suc­ceed at all costs, a ground-break­ing fe­male with 1 mil­lion per­cent drive who knocked over any­one who got in her way,” Do­herty-Elst says. “I am ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied.”

Do­herty-Elst knew noth­ing about Mengers un­til Welch in­tro­duced her to the play, which ran on Broad­way in 2013 with Bette Mi­dler por­tray­ing Mengers.

“I’m a huge Bette Mi­dler fan and loved the idea of do­ing some­thing that had been done by the Di­vine Miss M,” Do­herty-Elst says.

Welch was at­tracted to the work pri­mar­ily be­cause of the Streisand con­nec­tion.

“Any­one who knows me, knows I am a huge Bar­bra fan,” says the Racine na­tive and ac­tor. “I thought the show was so funny and witty, but also had heart. Sue is the kind of per­son I’d want as a friend.”

Mengers moved to New York from Ger­many with her fam­ily at age 8. She knew Ger­man but re­fused to speak it, learn­ing English by watch­ing Hol­ly­wood movies, which ac­counts for the fact she had no real ac­cent, Do­her­tyElst says.

An only child, Mengers de­vel­oped her ag­gres­sive style due to her mother — whom she de­scribed as “a gor­gon” — and her trav­el­ing sales­man fa­ther, who com­mit­ted sui­cide in a Times Square ho­tel room. In her bi­og­ra­phy, Mengers called her fa­ther’s act “re­dun­dant.”

“She says her fa­ther died from ‘thwarted dreams’ and com­pletely blames her mother, whom she hated,” Do­herty-Elst says. “The sui­cide had a pro­found im­pact on her, which is why she worked so hard to achieve her own dreams and those of her clients.”

The play is set in Mengers’ liv­ing room, where the agent awaits a con­fir­ma­tion call from Streisand, whose lawyers told her ear­lier that day that the star was fir­ing her.

With noth­ing to do but wait, Mengers com­mences a con­ver­sa­tion with the au­di­ence, re­liv­ing her life and shar­ing in­sights into her char­ac­ter.

The play’s set repli­cates a Kimp­ton Jour­ney­man ho­tel suite, with front row VIP seat­ing on soft chairs and so­fas de­signed to serve as an ex­ten­sion of Mengers’ liv­ing room. A raft of ta­bles and chairs pro­vide cabaret seat­ing be­hind the VIP sec­tion, with some ad­di­tional stools near the bar in the back of the house.

Welch will serve as Mengers’ but­ler, an un­scripted role de­signed to make ini­tial stage an­nounce­ments and lay out the rule of the per­for­mance. Those rules in­clude the abil­ity to make trips to the bar, some on the char­ac­ter’s be­half.

“Once Mengers sits down she never gets up,” Do­herty-Elst says. “There are a num­ber of spots where she needs some­thing, and it’s up to me to con­vince an au­di­ence mem­ber to run and fetch it.

“If I can’t do that, then the show doesn’t go on,” the ac­tor quips. “I’ve never seen a show like this be­fore and I find the im­prov

I’ll Eat You Last as­pect both ex­cit­ing and ter­ri­fy­ing.”

Mengers “swore like a sailor.” So, the ac­tor found curses creep­ing into con­ver­sa­tions with friends and col­leagues.

“Those are Sue Mengers spillover mo­ments,” she says. “I don’t think I am cool enough to pull off pro­fan­i­ties, which makes her a tough char­ac­ter to do.”

De­spite her acer­bic na­ture, Mengers was in­tensely loyal to friends, both Do­her­tyElst and Welch say. They also be­lieve her story is one of fe­male em­pow­er­ment in a male-dom­i­nated time and in­dus­try.

“I feel there is a les­son here,” Welch says. “Fol­low your dreams. Don’t give up. Be you with­out re­grets. That’s how Sue lived her life.”

Do­herty-Elst agrees: “Sue said, ‘You want to be a thing? Make your­self that thing.’ That’s a pow­er­ful, up­lift­ing mes­sage.”

“Maybe she doesn’t al­ways take the path we would, but she knows what she wants and goes for it,” the ac­tor adds. “And don’t worry about what other peo­ple think. She didn’t!”

is about Hol­ly­wood su­per-agent Sue Mengers.

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