Ordinarily, there are two reasons to see a one-person play about a historical figure. Audience members of "The Belle of Amherst" or "Tru" get to spend an evening with Emily Dickinson or Truman Capote, basking in their presence, while watching a master class in performance — one person, alone on a stage, sifting through a hope chest of memory and emotion to bring that figure to life.
There is really only one reason to see John Logan's "I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers" at the Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 22, and that is Bette Midler. She's playing a role she has been perfecting for most of her career: the hard-boiled dame with a penchant for profanity, a suitcase full of zingers and a soft, sticky center.
No one does it better and, increasingly, no one does it at all. As Mengers herself might have said, "The Belle of Amherst" it's not, but as directed by Joe Mantello, the 85-minute "I'll Eat You Last" is a helluva lot of fun to watch.
The subject matter will certainly resonate with people of a certain age in L.A., where many still remember the woman who was once the most powerful agent in the male-dominated entertainment biz. And it's always fun to get a glimpse of Hollywood when deals were deals rather than digital algorithms, when people screamed obscenities at each other over the phone, then went on to make nice — and award-winning movies.
Still, as specific as Logan gets in the details of how Mengers got Gene Hackman his Oscar-winning role in "The French Connection," Faye Dunaway into "Chinatown" or how she tried to poach Sissy Spacek, the engine that moves "I'll Eat You Last" is the archetype.
A young immigrant who patterns her English on the movies — "Which is why I sound like a gum cracking Warner Brothers second lead" — may learn that the best defense is a good offense — "Like I always say, if you can't say anything nice about someone, come sit by me," she croons, stealing a line attributed to many gloriously difficult women. But her heart remains easily broken.
Sue Mengers or not, that's a woman Midler could play in her sleep.
Or certainly from her sofa, which is precisely what she does here. From the beginning until the final moments of the play, Mengers remains seated. (An audience member is enlisted to fetch her various methods of mood alteration.)
Mengers is preparing for a party, one of the many celebrity salons for which she became famous. No one but stars, "my twinklies," were ever invited — "My own mother couldn't get in here if she were standing outside in the rain." More important, she is waiting for a phone call from Barbra Steisand, one of her oldest clients and dearest friends — "I knew her when she still had the other 'ah'" — who has just fired her.
Or rather, Streisand's lawyers — "her microstate of serious Jews who joined arms and bottle-danced their way to the speaker-phone" — fired her. Sue is waiting for the "can't we still be friends?" follow-up.
While she waits, Mengers reviews her life in full diva detail: Her triumphs (Hackman, Dunaway), her "failures" (Ali McGraw), the rules she made, the lessons she learned are all slapped down in acerbic one-liners with the drop-dead delivery of Bette Davis dealing blackjack.
Her body indistinguishable beneath a very fetching blue caftan, Mengers becomes essentially a face and a pair of hands. The hands are usually occupied with a cigarette or a joint, or both, the face obscured by the signature tinted glasses and shoulder-length hair.
This leaves Midler to work mostly with her voice, trained by one of the most diverse playbooks in the business. Her performance is infused just as much with the nimble elasticity of her famous cover of "Twisted," and the emotional depth of "The Rose" as it is by a lifetime of stage performance and film roles.
Many one-person shows are semi-rueful re-examinations of life lived large. As with the much darker "Tru," "I'll Eat You Last" is both hilarious and mournful, a reminder that stardom can fade just as quickly as it flares. For the most part, Midler moves well between the vulnerability and the wit that developed, like evolutionary armor, to protect it, though it's clear she prefers the latter.
Late in the proceedings, Mengers emotionally remembers telling Julie Harris that she would not be playing the role of Mary Todd Lincoln in a TV movie "because they wanted someone younger, someone sexier."
Then she takes a beat. A Mengers beat, perhaps, but certainly a Midler beat. A beat in which the audience knows exactly what's next and that Midler will nail it, which she does. "Like that famous sex kitten Mary Todd Lincoln."
"I'll Eat You Last" does not dwell on insight. In some ways, the play is as carefully curated as the shelves of Scott Pask's excellent set, in which knickknacks are arranged to distract the eye rather than offer information about the person who owns them. Mengers was cagey, as people in Hollywood often are; to them, the whys are never as important as the whats and the hows. And in this case, the hows are outstanding.
'I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers'
Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 22.
Contact: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.com