Bette Midler takes a luxuriant drag from the joint she’s holding in one hand, then a quick puff on a cigarette in the other.
She’s lit, and she glows like she owns the place, which she does, a studiedly taste-free mansion flooded with pale golden sunlight streaming through acres of glass.
“My modest little hacienda in the Hills of Beverly,” she says, peering out at the audience through bay-window glasses. “Previously owned by Miss Zsa Zsa Gabor, a star of the highest magnitude.”
This might be Midler riffing cat-like between songs in, say, her “Clams on the Half Shell Revue.”
It’s not. It’s the Divine one impersonating a once-powerful Hollywood agent facing her own sunset in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers,” the songless solo show that opened last night on Broadway.
She’s passing the time before an A-list dinner party to which we are all decidedly not invited and awaiting a consolation call from Barbra Streisand, whose lawyers, she tells us, fired her earlier in the day.
In the meantime, she doesn’t mind indulging us with some Hollywood dish, a little family history and a thousand f-bombs, not to mention the k-bomb to describe said lawyers when she isn’t substituting various Hitlerian lieutenants for their names.
Mengers and her family emigrated from Germany when it was still possible for Jews to leave, ending up first in the relative backwater of Utica, New York. After her father’s suicide, they relocated to New York City (“where every third person is a fat German Jewess”) and she is drawn to the world of show before the world of business, which eventually makes her powerful and rich.
John Logan, who wrote the terrific Mark Rothko play “Red,” has stitched together this tatterdemalion patchwork, about 10 minutes of funny in 85 minutes of maudlin as those ungrateful bold-face names desert her one by one.
The accoutrements of “I’ll Eat You Last” are fabulous in their verisimilitude, from Scott Pask’s oxygenated set (palm trees rise through the ceiling) and the aquamarine caftan Ann Roth drapes Midler in to Hugh Vanstone’s evocative lighting, which grows more meaningfully dim as the brief evening closes in around the star.
But even as gifted a director as Joe Mantello can’t make us care much about this character who figured so powerfully in a small circle of wildly self-important “friends.”
Those who come knowing Midler but not Mengers (who died in 2011) will be disappointed by this weightless valedictory, for there’s no swan, and no song.
Through June 30 at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: **
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.