Hollywood super agent Sue Mengers, at least the version playwright John Logan supplies in the solo show I’ll Eat You Last, was a glamorous, pot-toking pit bull in a caftan.
Coming from nothing but a dramatic back story (her family escaped Adolf Hitler’s Germany in 1938), Mengers clawed her way to the top of the movie industry. She represented the highest echelon of A-list stars (“twinklies,” she called them), and she knew when to push, when to cajole, when to detonate a vulgarity, when to mother.
In GableStage’s newly opened production of Red author Logan’s 2013 Broadway play, Carbonell Award winner Laura Turnbull holds forth as Mengers. She’s a raconteur with fangs and a reassuring smile, more than happy to dish the dirt (literally, in the case of her story about Sissy Spacek’s muddy Virginia farm) as long as an audience minion will come up and fetch her stash of joints or refresh her drink. Because, well, why get up if you have a room full of people hanging on your every word?
Paraphrasing President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Mengers says something on the order of “if you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” Actually, she’s the one who’s doling out the stinging gossip, though she does have nice things to say about Julie Harris, Ali MacGraw and (for the most part) Barbra Streisand.
Funny, foul-mouthed and insightful, she explains that she lost her German accent by immersing herself in movies — “that’s why I still talk like a gum-cracking Warner Brothers second lead,” she says — and in Turnbull’s performance, a bit of Bette Davis flavors her delivery every now and then.
Speaking of her husband, writer-director Jean-Claude Tramont, Mengers confides that on a good night, they’re like Nick and Nora Charles. On a bad one, they’re more like “Nick and Nora Charles Manson.”
Carbonell-winning director Michael Leeds has helped Turnbull achieve a beautifully shaded performance, biting yet warm, casually commanding.
Set designer Lyle Baskin has created an elegant, pale-peach version of Mengers’ Beverly Hills living room, its picture window revealing a sweeping view of Los Angeles. Watch as Mengers talks and tokes, and you’ll see afternoon slowly turn to evening. Kudos to lighting designer Jeff Quinn, sound designer Matt Corey, costume designer Ellis Tillman and video designer George Wentzler, who offers a montage of the real Mengers at the top of the show.
Mengers, who died in 2011, knew where the Hollywood bodies were buried (metaphorically burying some of them herself). In Logan’s play, she is forthcoming about friends and enemies. She likens rival Mike Ovitz of the Creative Artists Agency to Stalin, for instance, and observes that the taciturn Steve McQueen (whom she blames for killing MacGraw’s ascendant movie career) was always “nervous about being in a room full of smart, tall people.”
Me-ow. Catty and clever, I’ll Eat You Last gives Turnbull the chance to be her own kind of twinkly. In her performances, Mengers shines on.
If you go
What: ‘I’ll Eat You Last’ by John Logan.
Where: GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no evening show Aug. 2), through Aug. 30.
Cost: $37 to $55.
Information: 305-445-1116 or www.gablestage.org.