Lawrence Toppman

‘I’ll Eat You Last:’ The rise and fall of a hungry agent

Anne Lambert plays iconic Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last” at Warehouse PAC and UpStage.
Anne Lambert plays iconic Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last” at Warehouse PAC and UpStage. Magen Marie Photography

John Logan has cut himself in half and been paid handsomely, both in money and awards.

As the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Gladiator,” “The Aviator” and “Skyfall,” he creates movies with large casts, huge budgets and elaborate special effects.

As the Tony-winning playwright behind “Red” and “Peter and Alice,” he specializes in intimate dramas about real people who lay their souls bare in moments of crisis.

Sue Mengers does so with gusto in “I’ll Eat You Last.” The show by Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, now getting its regional premiere at Warehouse PAC in Cornelius, moves to UpStage in NoDa after its current run.

Forty years ago, everyone in show business knew who Mengers was: She represented Barbra Streisand, Cher, Burt Reynolds, Peter Bogdanovich, Gene Hackman and other top actors and directors.

She became Hollywood’s first superagent, a muumuu-wearing woman with a loud voice in a man’s buttoned-down world, signing clients through ceaseless energy, tireless schmoozing and an unquenchable if often filthy sense of humor. (To get the full lowdown, read Peter Biskind’s profile from Vanity Fair 16 years ago. Logan obviously did.)

The playwright had the good sense not to publish until Mengers died in 2011; the dead can’t sue for invasion of privacy, nor can you libel them. Bette Midler took the one-woman show to Broadway in 2013, and an actress needs a personality as outsized as hers to make the role work.

Anne Lambert is on her way to inhabiting the character. She had a few difficulties with the text Friday; more importantly, she’s not yet full of Mengers’ bravura, real or assumed. We see an apt vulnerability but not the tough exterior Mengers presented to the world and would probably present to us, at least at first. (And why are we in her house a few hours before one of her celebrated dinner parties? Are we interviewers? Neighbors?)

We meet her in 1982, when longtime friend and client Barbra Streisand has just fired her. Mengers is on the way down, musing about her storied past, and Logan’s play serves as a primer to Hollywood in her peak days.

She excelled at a combination of high-pressure negotiation and emotional manipulation, enjoying this realm of backstabbing, butt-kissing and chicanery. She more than once says, “Oooh, I loved her to pieces” about a client, as if breaking people down was the only way she could feel comfortable with them. Now she’s about to break down in turn.

Remember the graveside monologue in “Death of a Salesman”? “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. When they start not smiling back – that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple spots on your hat, and you’re finished.” Sue Mengers’ fall may not be as tragic as Willy Loman’s, but it resonates nonetheless.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

“I’ll Eat You Last”

When and where: Through March 12 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Warehouse Performing Arts Center, 9216-A Westmoreland Ave., Cornelius. Then March 18-20 and 25-27 at 7:30 p.m. at UpStage, 3306-C N. Davidson Ave., Charlotte.

Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.

Tickets at Warehouse: $20 (senior/student $15). Tickets at UpStage: $22 advance, $15 at door.

Details at Warehouse: 704-619-0429 or warehousepac.com. Details at UpStage: 704-749-4245 or upstagenoda.com.

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