NEW YORK Bette Midler marked her return to Broadway after more than 30 years on Wednesday, and critics lined up to heap praise on her turn in the one-character play "I'll Eat You Last: A Conversation with Sue Mengers" in which she portrays the legendary Hollywood agent.
The late Mengers was famous as a brash, foul-mouthed, witty and fearsome force of nature whose clients included Barbra Streisand, Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman to name but a few and critics noted the comfortable fit between the show's star and its subject. They also cited Midler's confident possession of the stage and seduction of the audience and most were impressed with the play itself as well.
The New York Times called "I'll Eat You Last" "a delectable soufflé of a solo show," lauding the "buoyant, witty writing," the "focused direction" and most of all, Midler, who it said "gives the most lusciously entertaining performance of the Broadway season."
Entertainment Weekly said "Midler manages a fabulous feat: She marshals all her own famously divine Bette-ness to bring to life a kindred spirit."
It too gave the play high marks, saying it "flows gracefully, flitting from ribaldry to Hollywood wisdom, then over to fabulously naughty stories, then around back to a kind of tender, tickled admiration for the lady in the living room."
Mengers, who died in 2011, retired in 1990 and settled into hosting salon-style dinner parties for Hollywood's A-list.
Midler has not acted on Broadway since her pre-fame days when she was a replacement in the 1960s' "Fiddler on the Roof," but has done several concert shows, most recently in 1980.
The raves continued from The Hollywood Reporter, which called the show "80 irresistible minutes of primo tinseltown dish from a certified master chef," adding that Tony-winning playwright John Logan "has done a magical job of transforming biographical data into sparkling liquid conversation."
"Midler's consummate ability to deliver brassy chutzpah, fierceness and silky comic seduction at the same time is harnessed to perfection, allowing just a judicious whisper of vulnerability," it said.
A somewhat dissenting note came from New York magazine, which said the show was "an event without quite being a play," and Midler "isn't delivering an impersonation or even exactly acting a role; she's running the Mengers prototype through her own sensibility and seeing what comes out," adding "But that's good enough, because the two Miss M's have enough in common.
According to the Daily News, "It goes down like a bucket of hot-buttered popcorn, with about that much nutritional value," but it found Midler "delicious" and well worth the price of admission.
The Times also hit on the show's dependence on Midler: "Tangy and funny as much of Mr. Logan's writing is, the play would hardly transmit the contact high it does without" Midler.
The New York Post agreed but didn't care. "This isn't much of a departure from the outsize stage persona Midler created for herself over the decades, but so what?" it said. "'I'll Eat You Last' is wickedly entertaining precisely because performer and material are so perfectly matched."
USA Today gave kudos to Midler's acting chops, saying that with the performance, the star "reminds us what a strong dramatic actress she can be."
(Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Bill Trott)