Performing Arts

Unicorn Theatre’s ‘I’ll Eat You Last’ offers a graphic view of show-business ecology

As Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers, Donna Thomason captures a once-powerful woman on the decline in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” at the Unicorn Theatre.
As Hollywood superagent Sue Mengers, Donna Thomason captures a once-powerful woman on the decline in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” at the Unicorn Theatre. Special to The Star

Finding the vulnerability in a showbiz barracuda is no easy task, but actress Donna Thomason does precisely that in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.”

John Logan’s one-act, one-woman show is a quick but detailed portrait of a woman who became one of the most powerful Hollywood agents in the 1970s and ’80s. Mengers represented, among others, Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Barbra Streisand, Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen. She also repped notable directors, including Mike Nichols, Bob Fosse and Peter Bogdanovich.

The play, set in the Beverly Hills, Calif., home Mengers shared with her husband, director Jean-Claude Tramont, takes place on an evening in 1981. Mengers is preparing for one of her legendary star-studded dinner parties, but she has positioned herself on a sofa near a telephone because she’s waiting for an important call. She’s waiting to be told personally by Barbra Streisand, the first performer Mengers represented at the start of both their careers, that Streisand has fired her.

The production at the Unicorn Theatre, directed by Sidonie Garrett, offers a reasonable facsimile of an opulent Hollywood living room on the small Jerome Stage, thanks to scenic designer Gary Mosby. In accordance with Logan’s stage directions, Mengers remains seated for most of the play’s running time. (At two junctures, Thomason/Mengers coaxes a front-row audience member to the stage to bring her a decanter and a little silver box where she keeps her dope.)

This long monologue, expertly performed by Thomason, lays out the essentials of Mengers’ remarkable life: her childhood in Germany, how she parlayed her early stint as a receptionist at the William Morris Agency in New York into a full-fledged career and her role as the premier deal-maker in Hollywood.

This is Thomason’s first appearance in four or five years, and her performance is memorable for its fluidity and razor-sharp comic timing. If she had to shake off any rust, there’s no evidence of it. Her skills are undiminished.

Logan’s script is, among other things, a celebration of gossip — which, Mengers tells us, is the prime lubricant of the movie business. And gossip she does. An extended section offers Mengers’ memories of Ali MacGraw, described here as a thoroughly decent human being, and her post-“Getaway” husband, Steve McQueen, whom Mengers regards as little more than a thug.

She also describes her machinations to land Gene Hackman the career-changing lead in “The French Connection” and Faye Dunaway her Oscar-nominated role in “Chinatown.”

This is a curious play in certain respects. It derives much of its entertainment value from the inherent incongruities in Mengers’ behind-the-scenes descriptions of stars with meticulously cultivated images. It also offers a vivid view of Hollywood sausage-making. But ultimately there’s not much in the parade of wealthy, privileged stars for “normal” people to connect with.

There is, however, a touch of genuine melancholy. We’re seeing Mengers in decline after many of her clients have jumped ship. With some of these people, Mengers tells us, she had real friendships. To lose them is painful, and we see that in Thomason’s performance.

Thomason gets important help from Alex Perry’s lighting design, which is subtle but crucial as he makes virtually imperceptible adjustments throughout the performance.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

Onstage

“I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” runs through Dec. 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.

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