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Bette Middler at The Geffen; "Parfunerie" at Wallis!

12/06/2013 02:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2014

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The live theatre scene in Los Angles is alive and well. All over town dramatic stage performances are springing up, and the prospects of seeing a good show are vastly increased. We will be reviewing herein the Geffen Playhouse show starring Bette Midler and the first dramatic stage show at the new Wallis Annenberg Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. But the Actor's Gang is active in Culver City, and the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood is staging many shows, as is The Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The Pasadena Playhouse is back in action with Bernie Weinraub's new show opening there in February,, and groups like Theatre West all over the Valley are thriving. Yes, L.A. is becoming a vibrant theatre town.

Bette Midler as Sue Mengers Bettle Midler as Sue Mengers. photo from Geffen Playhouse

If you haven't already purchased tickets to the Bette Midler show, I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, at the Geffen (10886 Le Conte Ave, 310-208-6500), then you may be out of luck....although I suspect they wlll try to get her to extend the show because of the unprecedented demand for tickets to this event. Yes, it is a real 'event,' and columnist Liz Smith revealed that scalpers are selling tickets for up to $700 apiece! Why such a hoopla for a 90 minute (without intermission) one-woman show about a person most people have never heard of? Well, the New York Times' critic wrote of its recent production there: "The most lusciously entertaining performance of the Broadway season." It really is, even though you may never have heard of the subject, a larger-than-life woman named Sue Mengers. It just so happens that I am probably the oldest living friend of hers in this town. Eons ago, the coltish young secretary at William Morris in New York fell in love with my partner at the time, Hilly Elkins, and thus we met and remained friends on-and-off until she died here in 2011 of pneumonia. I could fill this and a dozen other columns with Sue Mengers stories, for the tumultuous and brilliant agent became a legend in her lifetime. Just one... about a time when we both still living in New York. I had a weekend farm in Rhinebeck, NY. And one very hot July 4th weekend Sue showed up there wearing a full-length mink coat in the heat. "What's wth the coat," I asked, and she replied,"Billy Rose (a famous producer) lent it to me for the weekend, and I'll be damned if I don't wear it." When we both moved to California and she became the super powerhouse agent at CMA and then ICM, she and her mother Ruth came to my house in the Hollywood Hills in 1971 for a party I threw celebrating my deal with Paramount to make the Billie Holiday story, "Lady Sings The Blues." Its star, Diana Ross, was there with her manager, Berry Gordy, and we were all discussing the casting of the male lead, Louis McKay. I had unexpectedly encountered a young black actor from New York that morning while buying ice in a supermarket on Highland, and on a whim gave him my address and told him to be at my house that night. Billy Dee Williams showed up and charmed all, but Diana and Berry thought he looked too young for the role of Billie's husband/lover. Sue vehemently disagreed....."Get rid of the long sideburns and make him take off that f--kin' dashiki and he'll kill," she said to all. Several weeks later Billy called me at the studio and said he had grown a moustache. I called him in to take a screen test with Diana. The next afternoon, she and I looked at him in the test wearing a white suit and hat with his moustache and lazy smile, and she slid down in her seat and softly said, "He's the one." The 'black Clark Gable' was born and Sue was right again. (Incidentally, I deeply resent an ugly comment about Diana and Berry in this show. It was unnecessary and cruel.)

sue The real Sue Mengers. When young, she was cute as a button. photo from Jay's file.

In the '70s and '80s Sue Mengers was the super-uber agent when women didn't ever fill that role; she represented a vast coterie of star talents, starting with Streisand and going on to Beatty, Farrah, Ryan, Michael Caine, and scores more. In 1973 she married a close friend of mine, the handsome, charming Belgian film director Jean-Claude Tremont, and Barbra Streisand was the maid of honor. In a film by Stephan Sondheim starring Tony Perkins which came out that year, "The Last of Sheila," Dyan Cannon plays a character based upon Sue. (In a conversation with her later, she laughed and said, "She didn't even come close.") Having produced Billy Wilder's last film, "Buddy, Buddy," I was startled recently to hear someone say that "she was the female Billy Wilder." That's a gross exaggeration... Billy never was mean and vindictive, just sophisticated and funny. In the play, Midler sarcastically comments: "If you can't say something nice about someone, come sit by me."

bette midler as sue mengers Bette sits on her couch for the entire play. photo by Geffen.

The new play, written by John Logan and directed by Joe Mantello, occupies a period in the early '80s when Sue was waiting at home for a phone call from Streisand, who has just fired her via the star's attorney. Tony and Grammy Award-winning superstar Bette Midler plays the legendary agent, coming off the triumphant appearance on Broadway, her first appearance there in 40 years. As I have mentioned before, I am not a particular fan of Ms. Midler (too much outlandish shtick), and there must have been a reason why she was not even nominated for a Tony Award for this performance. But yes, she does shine here, never going over the line. In later years Sue became famed as a hostess to the stars, and her dinner parties were the most sought after invite in town. I have vivid memories of the blonde bombshell, with tinted glasses, a caftan to cover her burgeoning figure, holding a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other, ripping us all up with her wicked wit and stevedore language. Interestingly, David Geffen, for whom the Playhouse is named, and Gil Cates, for whom the theatre is named, were both contentious friends of Sue's. I would suggest that you call the Geffen boxoffice and put your name on any wait-list, and visit their website and see if there have been any last minute cancellations. I don't want to advise paying hundreds of dollars to scalpers, but I was kind of astonished to see that the best seats are going legitimately for $325. Gil Cates must be turning over in his grave.,,.and laughing at the same time at the absurdity of it all. But then again, that was Sue Mengers to a "T"......laughing and cursing at the absurdity of it all!

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The Wallis Annenberg center (Santa Monica Blvd. at Canon Dr.) is such a stunning building that I relish the idea of pulling up to its valet parking (despite the fact that they charge $16 for the evening, which is outrageous) and entering the gleaming Paula Kent Meehan entrance hall, all marble and glass and glitter. Thusfar I have been to one of its many openings, and then attended a weekend event there for the Academy. I did not get to see the Martha Graham dance troop (drat, no press tickets) but I did go to the opening of the new drama, Parfumerie, on Wednesday evening. This is a play adapted from the 1911 play, Illatszertar, by Miklos Laszlo, and was directed by Mark Brokaw. Much has been made of the fact that the original play inspired several subsequent films, including "The Shop Around the Corner," "In the Good Old Summertime," and "You've Got Mail," as well as the Broadway show, "She Loves Me." All of which were more entertaining than this original. Set during Christmas-time 1937 in Budapest, Hungary, the play centers on two bickering employees at an upscale perfume boutique who have been building an anonymous romantic relationship through love letters. (It's kind of a nice homage to the historic Beverly Hills Post Office which was located here.) I was thrilled to see Richard Schiff as the older male lead since I was a huge fan of his Toby Ziegler on "The West Wing." He plays the owner of the shop who finds his wife has been having an affair, and his deep dramatic skill stands out in a company of lightweights. Imagine that I must find myself praising the beautiful set designed by Allen Moyer and the costumes by Michael Krass rather than the performances.

perfume shop set The stunning perfume shop set. photo by Jay.

It pains me to criticize anything abut the Annenberg since I actually love everything they have done to date with this venue, but I could not help thinking that I wish my theatrical experiences this week had been reversed..,,and that Bette Midler was playing in the Bram Goldsmith Theatre there. Dear Ms. Lou Moore, Jerry Magnin, etc....get an experienced showman in quickly to bring some star quality to the theatre. For example, George Schlatter of our local community is one suggestion....he would bring a much-needed zing and zap to the shows...it needs movie star glamour and excitement to raise its profile even more....the shows must match the brilliance of the building! This play will run here until December 22nd, so you still have time to get tickets. Yes, despite my reluctance about the play, I do think you should go to experience the grandeur of the setting and to see the interesting exhibit before the performance of "Timeless Scents: A History of Fragrance," All that I expressed are minor faults in a magnificent venue.

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