It’s a real treat to have Bette Midler talking to you so up close and personal. New York audiences have not had the pleasure of seeing her on stage in over 30 years! That’s far too long. And even though she has not come here to sing (she sits the entire show but this is no Delores De Lago number) or delight us with her adorable pitter-pattering shuffle across the stage, she delights nonetheless with this outrageous character. If she feels out of her element doing a one-woman play it doesn’t show one bit. I’ve always thought of Midler as an accomplished actor and this performance confirms my belief.
At the top of the show, she is sprawled on a large coral colored couch wearing a giant blue caftan. Her first line is “I’m not going to get up.” And she doesn’t. She resists every instinct to stand or approach the audience - which is a testament to director Joe Mantello’s strength of will. Keeping the bundle of energy that is Bette Midler seated for 90 minutes is an extraordinary accomplishment. Mantello does cleverly supply her with enough business to keep her from boiling over. She chain smokes, sometimes with a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other and shifts positions on the couch. She invites an audience member on stage to fetch whatever she needs from the credenza. She hovers over the rotary phone waiting for life to come to her. She is so captivating and hilarious that 90 minutes pass in a flash.
Playwright and screenwriter John Logan pens this one sided conversation with the late Sue Mengers. Mengers was at one time among Hollywood’s most sought after agents but here she is an aging, reclusive socialite. Mengers was a star snob. She had little time for plebian affairs. Her clients were A-list 70’s stars including Cher, Gene Hackman, Bert Reynolds and even Barbara Streisand (from whom she is eagerly awaiting a call). She threw lavish dinner parties for her clients in her palatial Beverly Hills home. If you were there then you knew you’d made it. Logan’s script provides an enormous amount of insight into this exclusive world but it lacks real depth. Perhaps this is because his subject does too. She is a brash, elitist character with few likeable qualities. Her one redeeming quality was her biting humor. That is indeed the core of the script. What the play is missing in terms of story arc and emotion it makes up for with hysterical one-liners. Logan shows his mastery of writing ruthless gossip and snobby asides. There’s one laugh line after another in this homage to a Hollywood legend and Bette makes good on every single one.
I have to admit that at the end when Midler came out to take her bows and I could tell it was really her and not the character I jumped to my feet. I was happy to see Bette! I think that says a lot about her hold on this character. Her performance is mesmerizing. It’s not easy to seize an audience’s attention with just your story and your charisma but Midler pours it on and she never lost me for second. Bette’s return to the New York stage is a fabulous one! Would you expect anything less?