Sue Mengers represented dozens of eminent actors and directors during the New Hollywood era of the late '60s and '70s. The late talent agent possessed a scabrous wit untarnished by political correctness. About a certain famously gay singer/pianist, she said, "Elton's the easiest dinner guest ever: He'll eat anything but pussy."
About her ostentatious home, previously owned by
At least, she might have said these things. These are lines from I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers, John Logan's one-woman play set in Mengers' living room in the twilight of her career, which opens at GableStage this Saturday night.
"Agents and the way Hollywood works have always fascinated me," says GableStage artistic director Joseph Adler, who had a lucrative career in filmmaking before becoming a Miami theater maven. "I started reading Variety when I was in high school. I knew a lot about Sue Mengers; I've known people who knew Sue Mengers. The fact that Logan [who penned the Mark Rothko bioplay Red] was involved in writing it intrigued me even more."
In the play, Mengers shares Hollywood stories and dishes about her career and her life, which included emigrating with her family from Germany before the Nazi clampdown and learning English by watching lousy prints of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies. "That's why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Bros. second lead."
As she addresses the audience, Mengers smokes weed and drinks to excess. As Logan warns in his introduction: "This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, and gossip." The drugs further expand her senses of humor and openness even as they function as an escape from her mental anguish: For the duration of the play, she anticipates a phone call from her most important client, Barbra Streisand, who recently finished a disastrous movie directed by Sue's husband. Sue wants to know if she and Babs are still simpatico, but as the call-less minutes tick by, the answer seems to lean toward "no."
When Adler saw the Broadway production in 2013, with Bette Midler playing Mengers, he knew he needed a South Florida powerhouse for the role. Laura Turnbull was his first choice. Turnbull campaigned for the part, and now she has it — all 42 pages of long, blocky text, obscure movie references, and precise mouthfuls such as "I'm hot, town's hot, time's now, which I'm afraid your pseudo-Ivy-League-whiz-kid-boy-agents-slash-rentboys will fail to recognize."
"Directors always say, 'Just have fun,' " Turnbull says. "Michael [Leeds, who's guest-directing the production] hasn't said that yet, but I imagine at some point he might. And it is a fun piece. It's just really scary and kind of daunting.
"I'd never actively thought, I'm going to seek out a one-woman show," she continues. "It's kind of like being naked onstage. You want to say, 'Yes, I was able to do that; I conquered the fear,' and then you go, 'I don't need to do that again.' "
I'll Eat You Last presents challenges beyond just the enormity of its line memorization. There are also a couple of instances of audience participation, which will allow Turnbull to flex the improvisatory muscles she first exercised with the Groundlings troupe many years ago. Expecting the unexpected is essential. Audience members will have to fetch her drinks or perform other basic tasks. That sort of thing can develop in unpredictable ways, and she will need to be prepared to respond as Mengers would.
Another potential challenge is that Sue spends nearly the entire play glued to her living room sofa. Her opening line is "I'm not getting up," and she means it.
"It makes it harder if you're an actor to learn your
"We would concentrate on that, and it became almost like choreography," Leeds says. "It's down to 'Pick up the lighter here — this is where you light it or inhale for effect.' It's more specific than I would ordinarily
If all goes well, GableStage theatergoers will laugh a lot and walk away with a different perspective on the Hollywood agent. Mengers shows concern for Ali MacGraw's life choices. She passionately campaigns to transform Hackman from a supporting player to a leading man. The play dispels the notion that talent agents are all venal snakes. It should even contain an undercurrent of mournful pathos.
"[Sue] didn't have kids of her own," Leeds says. "The people who she represented, she treated like her family, so that when they left her, it was like a betrayal. What's great is watching Laura vacillate between the vulnerability and the hard negotiator that Sue was."
Turnbull summarizes her character nicely: "I think she's kind of a hoot — the nicest bitch you'll ever meet. She was ballsy, she was fearless, she knew how to go after what she wanted, and she had fun. She was the first person to put herself down, which would automatically deflate anyone who was coming at her. Like her or not, I think she was respected, for who she was and for everything she accomplished."