04/25/2013 08:23 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

First Nighter: Bette Midler Divine in I'll Eat You Last, Cicely Tyson's Beautiful Bountiful, Tristan Sturrock's Mayday Mayday

Tuning into the gossip the Divine Miss M spews jubilantly as another Divine Miss M is such fun it hardly matters that five minutes after the romp ends, much of the dirt dished with such five-alarm relish has completely faded in the cool night air.

That's to say, the iconic Bette Midler playing the iconic Hollywood agent Sue Mengers in John Logan's I'll Eat You Last at the Booth is so devilishly entertaining as the performance whizzes by, only an old theater fogey would point out that what's described as "a chat with Sue Mengers" is just that: a chat and nowhere near being a play.

It can be said safely enough that the 80-minute exchange is a character study, although its intermittent pokes at emotional depth register as contrivances and render this particular study of character about as deep as the nail polish on the Midler/Mergers finger nails -- those fingers often twirling a cigarette or even two at a time.

During the course of the talk that Midler's Mengers offers ticket buyers -- as if they're (more or less) welcome guests in her sumptuous living room (Scott Pask designed it) -- the hostess covers her rise from emigré German girl to unprecedented prominence in her field, but mostly she regales the spectators with obscenity-sugared opinions of the many people she represented. Until, that is, they quit her, and then her lonely-at-the-top condition is not too subtly underlined.

The Divine Miss Mengers is firing her stinging verbal confetti on the day in 1981 when she's received word through lawyers that she's no longer working with Barbra Streisand, whom she's known since the sublime singer still had the middle "a" in her given name. Told she'll be getting an explanatory ting-a-ling from the star herself, Mengers whiles away the time gabbing about landing Gene Hackman his award-winning French Connection role, attempting to pry Ali MacGraw free of Steve McQueen's abusive clutches, relaying her rules for successful agenting and hurling too many other zingy anecdotes to enumerate.

Directed creatively by Joe Mantello, Midler does all her blabbing while shifting positions on a long, cushion-covered sofa and wearing a sparkling caftan (Ann Roth's bow to Mengers's preferences). She never leaves her perch, even twice summoning an audience member (who doesn't look like a plant) to fetch for her. But although Midler is deprived of her signature fast-footed shuffle and an opportunity to sing even one chorus of "(You Gotta Have) Friends," she still has her ebullience -- the attribute on which she and director Bill Hennessey built the Divine Miss M in the first place. Unsurprisingly, it works like a charm.

Note to militant Midler fans: Anyone acquainted with Midler's wheelchair-bound mermaid may wonder if perhaps that sofa will turn out to be motorized. It doesn't. Note to Julie Harris fans, who fear the great actress's astounding six-Tony career is fading from memories: Mengers's first client was Harris, whom she adored and about whom she tells one of her more poignant tales. Should Harris catch the merry show, she'll undoubtedly be more pleased than will be Streisand, who's also being held up to some additional ridicule in downtown's current Buyer & Cellar.


The Trip to Bountiful, Horton Foote's beautiful and profoundly moving play about aging Carrie Watts longing for one last look at her family home -- is there any stronger human desire? -- was first presented 60 years ago on NBC's Philco Television Playhouse with Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint and was expanded for Broadway and Henry Miller's Theatre with Gish and Saint repeating their roles. Since then Geraldine Page won an Oscar as Carrie in the 1985 film and Lois Smith won plaudits for the 2005 off-Broadway revival.

There's no mystery surrounding the acclaim for Foote's work, only one of the many he turned out in his deliberately low-key yet dazzling career. Miss Watts's determination to make a journey adamantly discouraged by her caring son Ludie and self-absorbed daughter-in-law Jessie Mae is the stuff of primal dreams with which only the rare observer would fail to sympathize. Look at it this way: Heroes and heroines ranging from Ithaca's Odysseus to Kansas's Dorothy share the deep-seated feeling.

Now The Trip to Bountiful is revived at the Stephen Sondheim (on the site of the demolished -- save the façade -- Henry Miller's) in a thoroughly lovely production, directed by Michael Wilson with all the sensitivity the play requires. It stars a radiantly feisty Cicely Tyson as Carrie, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Ludie, Vanessa Williams as Jessie Mae, Condola Rashad as the young bride Carrie meets on her interrupted trip and Tom Wopat as a sheriff who comes to Carrie's rescue.

Of the play -- enhanced by Jeff Cowie's shifting set that includes the younger Watts's cramped, even imprisoning apartment and Carrie's tumble-down homestead -- it should be noted that in stretching his script beyond the hour-long television length, Foote padded it unnecessarily. While the comedy-drama is presented here in two acts running more than two hours, the Smith-led revival had no intermission and ran for 90 minutes or thereabouts, At a time when too many plays lasting only an hour and a half could and often should be longer, The Trip to Bountiful isn't one of them.

On the other hand, this cast is so strong -- Gooding Jr. in a fully assured professional stage bow -- a satisfied customer might not want it any shorter. Watching the 88-year-old Tyson arc her rainbow of moods is especially rewarding because it's simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming. Her final scene alone is exquisite.


Tristan Sturrock--so effective playing the Trevor Howard role when the Kneehigh Theatre spoofed Noel Coward's 1945 movie Brief Encounter--has returned to St. Ann's Warehouse in Mayday Mayday. This time he's alone on stage recounting a 2004 fall he took that resulted in a broken neck.

Introducing the solo outing, he confides that he was reluctant to talk about the accident for some time but finally realized he must. As he unfolds the history -- employing any number of props to help illustrate his plight -- he makes it plain that the one-man show has been meaningfully therapeutic for him. What he doesn't make entirely clear is an urgency on the audience's part to share it with him. On the other hand, he's a personable fellow, someone whom you're eager to see returned to complete health and whom you hope to enjoy in another Kneehigh production.