Sure, you can see plays inspired by the larger-than-life persona and career of Barbra Streisand. They're over the top, written to make you think and feel, and undeniably among the stage's most proudly gay productions. But why stop there when you can hear about Babs from the woman who launched—and almost destroyed—her career?
I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers stars Emmy-winning hostess of KATU's AM Northwest and local gay icon Helen Raptis as the delightfully acidic titular character, one of Hollywood's most notorious figures you've probably never heard of. The play, which debuted on Broadway with Bette Midler in 2013, digs into the life of Mengers (revered and loathed as the first female "super-agent," who died in 2011) and the performers she represented. While this chat includes plenty of juicy details about her former A-list clients, the nearly 90-minute monologue presents Mengers' fascinating backstory as well.
The unlikely climb to the top of her field began when her family arrived in America after fleeing Hitler's Germany. She learned English—and fell in love with cinema—by immersing herself in movies, sparking aspirations of becoming an actress herself someday. But when Mengers realized she wasn't going to make it on screen, she redirected her energy and set herself on a course to becoming a star maker.
At the pinnacle of her career in the '60s and '70s, Mengers represented some of the era's biggest names: Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine and Cher, to name a few. With the ability to make or break anybody in Hollywood (she was the force behind Gene Hackman's casting as the lead in The French Connection, a role that won him an Oscar) through her foulmouthed, in-your-face way of doing business, Mengers could've been the inspiration for Absolutely Fabulous' frank and brassy PR maven Edina Monsoon. It's an approach few women in that era could get away with. Watching Raptis as Mengers describe her days as a showbiz bulldog is a privilege. Raptis' delivery makes viewers feel as if they're almost worthy of an invite to one of Mengers' legendary Beverly Hills dinner parties.
For the entire one-woman show, which takes place in 1981, we're invited into Mengers' living room. That's where she opens up like a gossipy friend, rapidly dropping names of clients as you witness cinematic history play out in a blur, only this is behind-the-scenes dirt. Mengers tells us she doesn't care about Cambodia or politics, just who's got money and who's fucking whom. At one point, she recounts how she comforted Streisand in the wake of Sharon Tate's murder, telling her, "Don't worry honey, they're not killing stars—just featured players."
Mengers is a fun departure from Raptis' main gig as the cheerful face on morning television, guiding viewers through flower arrangement tips and updates on The Bachelor. And you can just tell Raptis is living out her drag-queen fantasy onstage in I'll Eat You Last. She naturally commands the script, which veers from the gleeful retelling of Hollywood lore to divulging personal details—like her father's suicide—that touch on triumph, trauma, revelry and despair without going maudlin. Raptis' Mengers might not own all her shortcomings, but she recognizes them without running away.
I'll Eat You Last sees Mengers just before one of those well-known dinner parties with "her sparklies," as she calls her clients. By the end of the chat, having gone through the highs and lows of her life—and yes, you do learn how she nearly ruined Streisand's career—Mengers shrieks a brokenhearted "Bitch!" at the telephone when she realizes Babs isn't going to call her back. By the end, you're left wondering whether any real Hollywood stars are coming over as she expects. But at that point, Mengers doesn't care. She insults the audience and tells everybody to get out as she leaves the phone unanswered when it finally starts to ring.
SEE IT: I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers plays at Triangle Productions, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., trianglepro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 14-16. $15-$35.