Performing Arts

Donna Thomason is back on stage in “I’ll Eat You Last”

Donna Thomason plays a legendary Hollywood agent in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” at the Unicorn Theatre.
Donna Thomason plays a legendary Hollywood agent in “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” at the Unicorn Theatre. Special to the Star

Donna Thomason has appeared in scores of musicals and straight plays, but she had never performed a one-woman show before the Unicorn Theatre offered her “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.”

The play by John Logan is a long monologue — the show runs almost 90 minutes — and depicts one of the most powerful agents in Hollywood in the 1970s. Thomason had a ton of lines to memorize but no acting partner to run lines with, so she went about it methodically.

“I spent probably June, July and the first part of August just reading it and reading it and reading it and reading about her,” Thomason said. “But then in the beginning of August, I sat down and made a schedule for myself — that I would have X number of pages by the third week of August.”

She gave herself another deadline in September and another in October.

She also recorded the entire piece and spent hours playing it back. She’d listen as she drove, and she’d listen on her iPad when she had a chunk of time to spare. And she’d run lines in her car — which, she said, probably means her neighbors think she’s crazy.

To anyone in the audience on opening night, Thomason’s performance was letter-perfect. But Thomason said that wasn’t exactly true. She had to get through a couple of minutes of flop sweat.

“Now I did get screwed up … on the five rules of being a great agent,” she said. “There was probably two or three minutes where my mouth was saying the correct stuff but my brain was editing myself because I skipped a paragraph. Your whole life passes before you. It’s hysterical. There was a period of time when my mouth was going and I was acting, but there was no cognitive brain thing happening because my head was in what I had missed.”

All actors research the roles they play, but when a performer slips inside the skin of someone who walked among us not so long ago, the homework multiplies.

Logan’s play is at once a celebration of a time when movies were at a creative peak and a caustic portrait of an ego-driven industry. Mengers represented some of the biggest names in the movie business in the 1970s and early ’80s — actors as well as directors and writers. And it just so happened that Thomason’s own show-business career overlapped briefly with the movie business described in Logan’s play.

In 1983 and ’84, she and her husband, the late actor Gary Holcombe, lived in Los Angeles long enough to realize that they preferred the relatively grounded world of theater to the free-floating film business.

“I remember being at parties where there were literally bowls of cocaine,” she said during a dressing-room interview. “It just eats away at solid humanity because there is no real foundation to people who lived in that made-up world. We were aware that you couldn’t trust anything anyone said.”

If you audition for a musical in New York, she said, you might get three bars into a song before you hear: “Thank you. Next!” In L.A., people might talk to you like you actually had the part — and you’d never hear from them again.

“It was all, ‘Hey, baby’ and, ‘Let’s do lunch,’” she said. “I truly hated the business out there. I had a visceral reaction to the falseness of the business in L.A.”

Which is why Mengers, who died in 2011, is such an appealing character. She could manipulate, schmooze and maneuver with the best of them, but when it came to her clients one of her rules was: Never lie.

Mengers was a German Jewish kid who spoke no English when her family immigrated and settled in Utica, N.Y. Embarrassed by her accent, she took pains to lose it.

“She had many years of elocution lessons in Utica because she didn’t want to sound like anyone but an American,” Thomason said. “One of the things I found fascinating about her — and the only film on her is a ‘60 Minutes’ interview — is that she didn’t have an accent.

“I knew she was German and didn’t speak any English (when she moved to the U.S.), but she didn’t have that Jewish New York cadence to her voice at all. The way she speaks is almost refined except for the massive amounts of profanity that come out her mouth. So there’s a heightened and kind of grand speech pattern.”

In the play, Mengers says she learned to speak English by going to the movies and emulating the speech of a “gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead.”

The play is set on an evening when Mengers is planning one of her storied dinner parties, but she’s waiting for an important call from Barbra Streisand — her first client who is firing her to go with a bigger agency.

“One of the things that was written about Mengers is that when these very well-known clients started to leave her, it was as if a cousin or a brother had deserted her,” Thomason said. “It was the beginning of that kind of corporate managing, where you have a manager and an agent and sub-agents.

“It damaged her in a way that was very profound for her. She was no longer the grand dame. She felt like she was on the outside looking in. But Jack Nicholson spoke at her funeral. Gore Vidal was a friend to the end.”

The play never explicitly addresses one of the most significant things about Mengers. She was a woman playing what traditionally had been a man’s game.

“I think that’s one reason people thought she was such a bitch,” Thomason said. “I think that kind of being honest and forthright is accepted a lot more if you’re a male. She was being a hard-ass, responsible agent who really wasn’t the deplorable creature she was said to be.”

Thomason’s previous local stage appearance was in “The Little Dog Laughed” at the Unicorn in 2008. She played a barracuda agent in that show, too. Generally regarded as one of the most gifted actresses in town, she also has a demanding day job as president and creative director of EPIC Innovative Events.

The company is a for-profit subsidiary of Starlight Theatre and produces corporate events across the country and sometimes overseas. Thomason said the job normally consumes 70 hours a week.

Initially, Thomason was considering directing “I’ll Eat You Last,” but Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s artistic director, convinced Thomason she should play Mengers. Sidonie Garrett, artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, staged the show.

“Cynthia said, ‘I think you’ve got this woman in you,’ and I said, ‘I absolutely know this woman.’ It happened to fall in a month when I didn’t have to travel and I’m taking a lot of vacation.”

Thomason said despite being a successful executive, she still thinks of acting as her first profession.

“I happen to be an actor who is now running a company,” she said. “I’m proud of being an actor. … I don’t think it’s something I’ll be able to do on a regular basis. But hopefully I can get back to it before another five years have gone by.”

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 www.unicorntheatre.org.

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