Hollywood super agent Sue Mengers was never a household name. But, in the 1970s, she was considered the most powerful woman in show business. The play, I'll Eat You Last, opening this weekend at the Unicorn Theatre, shows that Mengers could be as vulnerable as she was cut-throat.
Sidonie Garrett, the show's director, answered some questions about the show as part of our monthly series, Director's Cuts:
I’ll Eat You Last is a one-woman show about notorious Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Can you describe her, her influence, and that notoriety?
"She was a – the – female super agent in Hollywood in the '70s and right up to the very beginning of the '80s. She had a good strong ten years of being THE agent. All the biggest stars were her clients. She was, in her own words, ferocious about how she operated. She was really the only woman doing that job, so she had to play with the big boys.
She was cute and blonde and was not afraid, and I think she’s self-made. That’s most important: she made herself. She talks in the play about how many people were making themselves up back then – if you wanna become a thing, become a thing. That’s what she did. Based on her early life, she had a lot of impetus to do that."
The play is set in her living room and she’s sort of waiting for a phone call from one of her clients. I’ll let you talk about what the set-up is.
"Yeah, she’s waiting for the call from Barbra Streisand, who was her long-time client and long-time friend. They became friends in New York City and then moved to Hollywood after that. She knew Barbra when Barbra was still Barbara Streisand, before she lost that 'a.' So she’s waiting for the call and she thinks Barbra has fired her and is replacing her. We’re meeting her at kind of the denouement portion of her life before the next step, which is not being an agent anymore, certainly not being an agent of that caliber. We’re meeting her right as she’s gone past the apex of her career and is starting her ‘What do I do next?’ phase."
And she ate, drank, smoked, imbibed with her clientele.
Almost to the point of neglecting her own life, her own health, would you say?
"Yes, I would say. I think that was her life. I think her job was her life. She was a workaholic in that way. I think she would do anything for her clients. She worked incredibly hard for her clients. She believed in artists and artistry. She believed in stars. She revered stars. She loved stars. She loved being part of that and she loved the business.
In the play she says,’ I love the business of the business. Why be a king when you be a king-maker?’ There’s an incredible amount of power in that, an incredible intimacy with people who create, and I think that’s very beguiling. Having information – she loved to gossip. She imbibed everything. She lived fully. She was not a dieter. She was not a teetotaler. She smoked anything that people would put in front of her. She drank anything put in front of her. She lived voraciously in that way."
Why do you think the author of the play, John Logan, thought she deserved a showcase like this?
"I think he understood she was a star in her own right. Because of being a female in that time, she was a unique creature. She’s kind of like a snow leopard. There’s not very many of anything, so it’s always beguiling. She had a star’s way about her. She talks about Streisand’s perfectionism and her ability to make people adjust things to make them right, and all of that, that special quality Streisand had that she so revered. She worked very hard at figuring out what her artists needed and to give that to them, and I think was very intuitive in that way."
With Bette Midler playing Mengers, the show was a sell-out hit in NY and did great in L.A. – both showbiz towns. How do you think it will play in Kansas City?
"Well, I think Kansas City is a little bit of a showbiz town, too. We’re not a Hollywood town but we’re certainly a huge theater town. I think it’s gossipy, it’s funny, it’s heart-wrenching at points. I think the character of Sue Mengers herself as a woman and also as the character written is incredibly dramatic. She lived a bigger than life life and her personality was bigger than life. She’s got a very interesting story to share. You know, it’s why we’re here; we’re always here for the stories.
This one has a great story to tell. She left Germany as a child, a member of a Jewish family, right before Hitler, and managed to get out in time, thank God. And her whole life stems from there and some horrible childhood experiences and then childhood triumphs and continuing triumphs. It gave her, you know, she had chutzpah, no question. She’s fascinating. I think our theatrical town and our theatricals will enjoy her."
Actors will tell us that acting is about listening and reacting to the other players, but Donna Thomason, who plays Mengers at the Unicorn and is the only character in the show, doesn’t have that luxury. How do you, as director, approach that challenge?
"That’s a great question. I think the most important thing is helping her to connect to me in the room as a member of the audience, and think of me as every audience member. When you tell stories, you connect to whoever you’re telling the story to, whomever it may be. Once we’re full blown in the theater, she’ll have that experience of talking to a bunch of different people, which is scary for the actor as well because we don’t always break the fourth wall in that way.
Many times, we’re talking only to the other characters, and her other characters are the audience, and the audience is always part of that give and take. The audience in live theater is everything to us because their energy feeds the actor. Their energy feeds the storytelling and drives the storytelling, especially when it’s a comedy because you’re waiting for the laughs to come and there are many in this play."
With most one-person shows, people will always say afterward, ‘How did they learn all those lines?’ So I want to ask you what is the secret to supporting Donna learn a 90-minute script that she alone has to sell?
"Right. It’s a tricky thing. Actors do it differently, I think. It kind of depends on what kind of a learner you are. Some people are visual learners. Some are kinesthetic; they have to move when they do it, so they aren’t able to learn chunks of what they do until they’re up on their feet. I think some of that has been true for her.
I will tell you, that question always makes theater people laugh a little bit because it’s sort of like the carpenter putting on the tool belt. If you don’t have any nails, you’re not going to build a very good house, so without the words, you have nothing. And that’s really just the beginning. I mean, you have to just get the words in before you can do anything with them. Before you can speak them with intent and meaning, before you’re able to interpret them and give them back out in a way that tells the story."
What part of the play do you think depicts the essence of who Sue Mengers was? Is there one story or chain of stories that really captures the essence of her?
"Maybe the most essence of her would be the story she shares about Ali McGraw. I think it shows her ferocity. I think it shows her capability for care and love. I think it shows how much she loved her job. That story says a lot about her."
Last question. What has Sue Mengers taught you about being a strong professional woman?
"I think she reminded me that it’s okay to assertively demand – not sure that’s the right word – but when you know something’s right, you go for it. And I think she has a great lesson about going for it, whatever it may be. In her life, it was crossing the playground. She had a big experience in her young life she thinks shaped her life in terms of being bold enough to walk across the playground and introduce herself with a strong German accent to try and get in with the kids. What’s scarier than walking into a group of kids you don’t know? We can all remember that in kindergarten or first grade.
She reminds us to do that in life. Anything in life that you’re afraid of, if it means something to you, or if it’s going to lead you somewhere that’s going to be good for you, take the risk. Trust your gut and you can make something of yourself if you just have the guts to cross the playground."
'I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers' runs December 11 - 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-531-PLAY (7529).
The “In This Scene...” series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.