SALT LAKE CITY — One person shows are not easy undertakings. A single performer has to be dynamic enough to capture the attention of an audience for sixty or more minutes with no other performer to assist them. Solo performances are the marathons of acting, at times a sheer act of perseverance and passion relying on memoir to chart a lasting journey. At its best, it is mesmerizing; at its worst, it is incredibly uncomfortable and regrettable. I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers at Salt Lake Acting Company definitely cast a spell over me.
The key to this magic is the subject: original Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers. Mengers, who passed away in 2011, was nearly as famous as the cavalcade of stars she represented during her golden decade of the 1970’s. Bold, blowsy, ball-busting, and full of chutzpah, she was a fabled force of nature. Clad in an embellished caftan and oversized glasses (costume by K. L. Alberts), Camille G. Van Wagoner paints Mengers in the garish, living color that she would have not only appreciated but encouraged, letting even the occasional maudlin brushstroke show through the carefully frosted blonde coif and polished veneer. The script by John Logan (best known for movies Gladiator, The Aviator, and Hugo and the play Red) is sharp, quick, and full of unapologetically ruthless wit.
Much has been written about Mengers’s tenacity, both in her life and in her chosen profession, but it is the humor that sets I’ll Eat You Last apart. The show begins with a posted “Warning: This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip,” and charges brazenly forward for 80 crass and delicious minutes. This is not a script for the faint of heart or the politically correct. The audience is treated to a pre-legendary dinner party chat with the queen, but this monarch trades in tea and cookies for booze, bonbons, and pot. Queen Sue doesn’t stand on ceremony, or stand at all. The entire play is delivered from various reclining positions on a plush sofa dead center stage in a candy colored re-creation of Mengers’s Hollywood foyer designed by Keven Myhre.
The play is set on a night in 1981 when Mengers’s empire is on the verge of collapse. She has just been fired by friend and longtime client Barbra Streisand and is waiting for her ever-present three-line rotary phone to ring with a personal call of explanation. Sue is not patient.
Under the direction of Robin Wilks-Dunn, Van Wagoner inhabits Mengers with relish, aware of the superficiality of her job, her look, and the calculated casualness of every name drop. Every A-lister she signed or “made”—from Streisand to Gene Hackman to Faye Dunaway—appears vital to her, not just for the cachet, but also for the human connection. They are more than just “sparklies” (her pet name for famous guests) at a dinner party. Mengers’s clients are family. But not even family is safe from being dish. The real strength of this show is that beneath the enthusiasm and aggression of this larger than life character is an uncertainty. The looming precipice of change that remains after every quip, anecdote, and apocryphal personal experience that creates surprising depth for the frivolous and superficial subject matter. Van Wagoner nimbly shows that through all the hyperbole and vitriol, there is heart.
As much as I truly enjoyed this show, there were times when the pacing was jarring and some of the transitions (aided by James M. Craig’s super subtle yet appropriate lighting) seemed forced. I was also confused about when the piece was set until I read the director’s note after the show. Still, this is a fun and brief evening of irreverence I highly recommend.