Designing for the Hollywood High Life

in Inside Theatre

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, featuring Bette Midler on Broadway. Photo by Richard Termine.Bette Midler’s one-woman show, I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, pulls off a neat trick: having the comedienne enthrall us for 90 minutes while sitting on a couch for nearly the entire running time. Portraying the comically animated yet seriously commanding Mengers, Midler takes us, during the course of a single afternoon, on a journey through her late friend’s life and 30-plus year career, during which she became one of the biggest agents in Hollywood. The story starts with the mega-agent’s shy childhood, builds to the pinnacle of her star agent status, and then leads us to the winding down of her career.

At Home in Beverly Hills

The supporting character of this show is Scott Pask’s sleek set design, which was inspired by a house that Mengers lived in near the end of her life that was designed in the 1950s by iconic Hollywood architect John Elgin Woolf. By providing dazzling surroundings for Midler’s character, the elegant onstage re-imagining of the Beverly Hills home allows plenty of places for the audience’s eyes to roam while their ears continue to absorb her career-spanning monologue.

When Pask first spoke to director Joe Mantello about the play (both have Tonys to their credit), he observed how it is about Mengers’ exit from the industry, “about her amazing agenting being taken over by corporate agenting. It’s also a transitional place for her where she goes from kingmaker to having a roundtable at her home with all of these amazing characters — still having a great hold in Hollywood, but it’s a different kind of power.”

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, featuring Bette Midler on Broadway. Photo by Richard Termine.In considering how to architecturally convey that theme, Pask could easily have created a naturalistic setting, but he chose not to. “It had to be contextual from the start, and it’s written to be her on the sofa,” he explained, of John Logan’s play. “A big part of it is about her waiting for this phone call [from Barbra Streisand] and potentially conducting business in a place that she doesn’t do business. That’s why this telephone is almost a little foreign object that’s invaded this personal space that is revered, cherished and saved for her entertaining and personal enjoyment. Business is relegated to other space. Here she’s brought it into this room. Then, when she stands up finally in the play, that’s an event.”

The set has an intriguing layout. Front and center is the blue-frocked Mengers on her burnt sienna-colored couch “throne” with a cluttered glass table in front. To her right are a lamp and a plant, and at the edge of stage right, there’s a credenza topped with various drinks. Twice during the show, the superagent summons an audience member to come up to the stage and bring her a drink or a smoke. At stage right is the doorway to a long hallway that wraps around behind her. The glass panes throughout the set allow for a full view of the bookshelf-lined hall that features mementos of her life, including photos, antiquities, and china that she collected.

Reflections amid Darkness

During the 90-minute monologue, the lighting in the living room gradually becomes darker as the time of day stretches from late afternoon through dusk to evening, mirroring Mengers’ dwindling time in the Tinseltown spotlight. The light reflecting off of the unused “pool” offstage left gradually becomes more present as it creeps across the ceiling.

While this set has “whispers” of a house that Mengers lived in, Pask made the onstage architecture grander. “I made it a theatrical scale,” he explained. “Joe and I talked about trying to have some air and not be so heavy on naturalism, to let it be a theatrical space. That’s why there are walls missing at stage right that bleed off into that peach stucco.” While we never see the sky outside of her windows, the open oculus outdoors, with the bottoms of two palm trees rising out of it, suggest that it is out there. Other natural elements are also hinted at. “You never see a leaf, you see the effect of those leaves in shadow. You never see the pool, you see the effect of the light on the pool as it transforms from dusk to evening.  I think that’s part of [lighting designer] Hugh Vanstone’s brilliance.”

What helps give the set depth, and allows the audience to see into the space outside and into the hallway beyond, are glass panes (some nearly 16 feet high and about a half-inch thick) running along the back of the living room and then wrapping around in the hallway in the back. “I’ve never worked with glass on stage at that scale,” revealed Pask. “With the reflections of her as the light starts to go down, we get to see that different side of her from different vantage points within the audience. You see her head and you see the reflection of her body when she stands up, [mirroring] these different perspectives to her life that you see at different moments in the play.”

As the hallway curves around upstage, the glass panes become smaller because it is “a pretty exaggerated perspective. It just sits there in a way that it is not screaming that. The hallway is very compressed. It’s very big at the door opening at stage right, and the bookshelves are very angled when you come downstage to support the angle of the roof, so that whole perspective vision is supporting the greater depth of space that we’re trying to create. I feel that the Booth Theatre is so wonderful in how it embraces an audience, so my walls reach out to those points and are taken over by the rest of the architecture of the theater.”

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, featuring Bette Midler on Broadway. Photo by Richard Termine.Precision Engineering

Pask said that the glass panes were an engineering challenge and felt “incredibly grateful to Hillary Blanken and all the brilliant minds at PRG Scenic Technologies for making that happen. I was able to get the size glass that we needed for the model. We found a product that worked for the scale of the set, which was kind of miraculous. The ceiling was plastered, and it came in almost like a hovercraft. It was touched up on site, but it never had one little moment of integrity compromised. That ceiling for me was a big feat of engineering that was so well executed because there isn’t architecture to cover it up. I find that the minimal spaces are the most difficult to create because there isn’t anywhere to hide, and the construction becomes part of the art of making them come to life. Their imperfections are so visible. In this case, it was constructed so beautifully that it just sat there like a jewel.”

While a lot of timber was certainly used in creating the stage, a lot of steel was used to support the frames of glass. The floor is raked, and at stage right there is the doorway, “so the ceiling is cantilevered out there. There’s no support that comes from below. It just kind of hovers in that space.”

The most challenging aspect for Pask with I’ll Eat You Last was developing a palette that he felt was sophisticated yet also soft enough that it did not get bleached out by light, but that the light would also react well with. He needed to make sure that it did not become too pale. The trained architect revels in taking on such challenges. He said that while the space Midler occupies onstage does not represent his personal taste, “it is such a great room that you could envision yourself spending time in it.” Ultimately, he wanted everything onstage to support the thematic concepts and narrative changes in the show.

I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, featuring Bette Midler on Broadway. Photo by Richard Termine.The Couch as Nest

Pask added that he and costume designer Ann Roth “chose the sofa fabric very carefully, because the sofa in a way becomes a part of her costume. We spent time with the upholstery. You start with the sofa, and then it kind of breathes out from there — the pillows, the floor, the rug, the chair, and how each of those objects is so carefully curated. There are not many of them, so they need to stand there and hold their own to support the bigger vision. But everything has to step back enough so that it provides a nest for Sue Mengers.”

The set for I’ll Eat You Last is rich in its asymmetrical proportions and, with Hugh Vanstone’s lighting, allows for new details to emerge over time. “You have more depth stage left, and stage right has that background of the hallway and the bookcases,” noted Pask. “The whole room is kind of on an angle, but it’s oval. The couch is at an angle, the rug it’s sitting on is at an angle. I find it to be a very dynamic geometry. I think part of the dynamism is what keeps the focus on her and the piece, but it does allow your eye to travel at different moments. You look up over there, and that side turns to a certain shade of coral, and then the lights turn on that illuminate the palm trees from below and create a texture that you didn’t necessarily see at the beginning. So it reveals itself over time.”