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Conversation with Don Stephenson

Director of “I’ll Eat You Last” dishes on superagent Sue Mengers

By Alex Gerber

HARTFORD – Hollywood, heartache, and the American dream. That about sums up “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers,” on stage at TheaterWorks in Hartford now through August 23.

Written by John Logan and directed by Don Stephenson, the one-woman play starring Karen Murphy follows the story of Sue Mengers, the first female Hollywood “superagent” back in the ‘60s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, whose superstar clients included Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway, Burt Reynolds…to name but a few. In this funny new show, Mengers, who died in 2011, invites you into her Beverly Hills home for an evening of ‘dish.’ Names are dropped, secrets divulged, as the wickedly brash woman reveals how she went from a non-English speaking Jewish immigrant to a film industry powerbroker. It was a fabulous career … while it lasted.

To get the ‘dish’ on “I’ll Eat You Last,” the Ledger recently spoke with director Don Stephenson, whose credits critically acclaimed productions of “The 39 Steps,” “Noises Off,” Lend Me a Tenor” (BroadwayWorld Nomination for Best Director), “Deathtrap,” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He also developed and directed a chamber version of “Titanic” in 2012 and the staged concert of “Titanic” at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.

Stephenson is married to Emily Loesser, daughter of “Guys and Dolls” composer Frank Loesser.

Q: What makes Sue Mengers a worthy subject for a one-woman play?

A: Sue was really an amazing success story. She came to America as a German immigrant when she was a kid. She didn’t speak a word of English; she learned English by going to the movies, and I think that really captures her imagination. She wanted to be an actress early on in her life, and then decided that she didn’t have the talent to do that, but she still wanted to work in that business. And so she found this niche for herself and started working as a secretary at an agency until somebody hired her to be an agent. From there she just kept moving up in the industry. She eventually moved to California and truly became a star herself. She was a woman working in a man’s world and a man’s profession at that time, which makes her success even more remarkable. Mike Wallace did a whole piece on her on 60 Minutes, so something like that was unheard of at the time.

Q: What was her relationship with her superstar clients like?

A: It was very close. She became a part of their lives and part of their families and took it all personally. She was the muscle and the brains behind many stars’ careers. Her client roster was just unbelievable. She worked with the biggest stars ever: she discovered Barbra Streisand, Gene Hackman, Peter Bogdanovich, Cybil Shepherd, Burt Reynolds, Faye Dunaway. She had her hands in some of the greatest movies ever made. These actors would not have had the careers that they had if not for her. There’s no doubt that Gene Hackman would not have gotten the part of Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection” had it not been for Sue Mengers, who drove over to the director’s house, parked in his driveway, and wouldn’t let him leave until he gave Gene an audition. He got the part, won the Oscar, and it changed his life.

As I sit here and watch the show over and over again, I think, my God, I wish she were my agent. I wish somebody like her would go and drive over and block somebody’s car in their driveway on my behalf. It’s fantastic. I think the people that had her as an agent were lucky. She fought for them like a terrier. We should all be so lucky.

Q: She sounds like a throwback to a bygone era.

A: One of the things she talks about in the play is how agenting is changing from the way she believes it should be done. It has become very corporate, very bottom-line; the agents are more about spreadsheets and statistics, as opposed to nurturing the actors’ careers. She even accuses Mike Ovitz and all of those who were CAA agents at the time of not even liking the movies. ‘Do you even have a favorite movie?’ she asks. ‘Do you like movies? Do you go to movies?’ She had a real love for it. It’s all about numbers now: how much the gross is, how much money a film makes the first week out; is it going to have a sequel? It used to be about fostering, nurturing the career and making a product, a movie, that you could really be proud of. Let’s face it – today, aren’t most movies made for 14- or 15-year-old boys? The days of making Klute, The Last Detail, Being There, Serpico are over. Every now and then a movie will sneak through that has those kind of qualities, but that’s usually an exception, not the rule nowadays.

Q: At one time she was so close with Streisand that the actress was maid of honor at her wedding. So how did she take being fired by Barbra?

A: The play does have moments of pathos. The whole premise of the show is that she has been fired by Barbra Streisand as her agent. She tells stories while she’s waiting for Barbra to call her. It has moments of what I like to call ‘meat on the bone.’ It has heart. You see that Sue cares about the clients, and that she feels deeply wounded when they abandon her. I think because she put her heart and soul into it and really did take it personally, that it was devastating to her, as opposed to somebody that’s just looking at the spreadsheets, the bottom line, the percentages, this corporate way of doing things. You see that in the play, which keeps it from being this silly sugar story.

Q: Is there a story behind the play’s intriguing title?

A: Sue said that would be the title of her autobiography if she ever wrote one, which she never did. The book she never wrote, I’ll Eat You Last, refers to the survivors in a lifeboat. If we were all stranded on a lifeboat together, who would we eat last? That was this rapier wit she had – and the play really captures that. She’s somebody that you would want to sit around with at a party and talk to. This play is what brought Bette Midler back to Broadway two seasons ago, and now it’s starting to be done in other places.

The play is a one-woman show written by John Logan, who met her once and thought she had great character.

Q: Tell us about the show’s star, Karen Murphy. What does she do to bring out her inner Mengers?

Karen Murphy

Karen Murphy in TheaterWorks production of “I’ll Eat You Last”

A: Karen and I did “Titanic” together on Broadway, in the original production, so we’ve known each other for a long, long time. She’s a great actress, and she’s really funny. The script is about 60 pages long; it’s quite a feat to memorize 60 pages, and so I really admire her for that. It’s daunting for an actress; but she just systematically chips away at it, sort of like an ice sculpture. You start to chip away at this block of ice until you have it in the right shape. You hear these fantastic stories in the play that she tells at her dinner parties. It’s like today’s equivalent of US magazine. Everyone wants to hear all of these salacious stories and the inside scoop on these movie stars, and she delivers it.

Karen’s sense of humor is really what she brings out of her. Having that funny bone, as I like to call it, is crucial because Sue was so funny herself. It’s something that you can’t teach. So, when [TheaterWorks artistic director] Rob Ruggerio and I were talking about the kind of actor we would need for the show, we thought of Karen. We had both worked with her before – me, just a couple of months ago on Guys and Dolls – and we thought she was perfect for the role. You need somebody who gets the humor, who can have the stamina to be up there for the entire time by themselves and going at a very fast clip engaging the audience, but who also can memorize all the lines. I can’t say enough how difficult that is. Normally, when you’re in a scene, another actor comes on and you have this exchange of lines between actors. That not only lifts the scene, but one of those lines will also remind you of what you’re supposed to say next. Well, if you’re doing a one-person show, there’s nobody else. It’s just you. That’s one of the hardest things you can do as an actor. So, my hat is off to her; my admiration could not be higher. Everybody should come see it because they’ll get quite a treat.

Q: What excites you most about the play?

A: Growing up, all of these movies that they talk about in the show – movies like Network, Bullet, The Towering Inferno – were my favorite movies. I think the best movies ever made were made in the ‘70s. All of the stars that she talks about that she agented for are all of my favorite actors, so I love getting to hear the inside scoop. I really identify with how Sue was able to put herself into the business, mainly because I did that too. I grew up in Tennessee, so I didn’t have any connections to showbiz at all. I certainly didn’t need to escape from the Nazis; I just had to drive up from Tennessee, which is hardly the same. But it was just uncharted territory with something that I wanted to do. I really identify with how she knew what she wanted to do, and she just went out and did it.

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