When Bette Midler didn’t garner a Tony nomination for her portrayal of the late super-agent Sue Mengers, some complained this was a major slap.
I’m not sure who should have been excluded to make room for her. As far as slights in the leading actress category in a play go, Midler’s exclusion doesn’t resonate as the biggest surprise. That dishonor would have to go to Fiona Shaw not being nominated for “The Testament of Mary.”
Whether recognized for the award, though, doesn’t detract from this as an evening of entertainment or Midler’s secure status as a star. Only a star can hold an audience rapt for almost an hour and a half with no breaks, no movement and nothing but her voice. For the record, the Divine Miss M does not sing.
Rather, she holds court with the audience. Wearing a filmy blue muumuu — which costume designer Ann Roth manages to make beautiful — Midler handles the role of the brassy, foul-mouthed and very funny Mengers perfectly. She engages by only telling stories, never stirring from her couch.
Mengers is so phenomenally lazy she picks an audience member to fetch her silver box, holding her joints, from a few feet away. The second time she summons him on stage it is to bring over a canister of water.
That was the only movement, and it takes someone with Midler’s sheer moxie to hold the audience. John Logan’s beautifully written script and Joe Mantello’s tight direction keep the play moving.
Mengers was the agent to A-list Hollywood stars, including Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Ali McGraw, Faye Dunaway, Michael Caine and Richard Dreyfuss.
“Movie stars never have problems,” she says. “They have travails.”
Her favorite activity is to dish with them, especially with Barbra Streisand. Mengers discovered Streisand when she was playing a tiny gay club in New York and Mengers knew her for so long, she recalls when she had the extra “a” in her name.
Mengers, who died in 2011, had relished her spot among the “twinklies” as she called movie stars. She fought and for her clients, and with them. She bullied whomever she could whenever she could, but she was somehow charming about it.
In this 90-minute, one-woman show at the Booth Theatre, Mengers relays her life story before one of her famous dinner parties.
Mengers was a Jew, born in Germany. When she was 8, and as Hitler rose in power, her parents fled with her to upstate New York. There, she learned to walk up to kids she didn’t know in the playground, introduce herself and try to get in the game. It was a skill that would come in handy for the rest of her life.
After her father’s suicide, she and her mom moved to The Bronx. Mengers longed to be an actress until she signed up for acting lessons and found herself the homeliest person there.
But she landed a job at the William Morris Agency and realized she “loved the business of the business” and stuck with it. “Why be a king when you can be a kingmaker?” she asks.
Fierce, formidable and frank, Mengers was the sort of player who threw elbows. She did everything the men did, only no one was expecting it in a woman. But she was adorable and fun, toking away on pot, sometimes two-fisted smoking — a cigarette in one hand, a joint in the other.
Midler is tremendous fun, and it’s very likely that Mengers emphasized words in the odd way Midler does in the beginning and end of the play. Though this is a great story, and hard to imagine too many people capable of telling it so well, it still doesn’t seem insulting that her name is not on the Tony contenders for leading actress.
But if Sue Mengers were representing this, believe us, heads would have rolled.