at the theater: hands on a hard body & i’ll eat you last

hands on a hard body & i'll eat you lastDo you ever feel like you’re floating somewhere in the outer orbit of the cultural zeitgeist? I’ve felt that way all season, at times amazed by the brave work which has gone virtually ignored and astonished by the dreck which has floated to the top. With the Tony Awards quickly approaching I find it bewildering that two of my favorite evenings at the theater this season have – to quote Julie Andrews – been egregiously overlooked. Hands on a Hardbody – now shuttered, alasis one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in years. Based on the 1997 documentary of the same name, Doug Wright, Amanda Green, and Trey Anastasio’s show takes the pulse of a country where desperate economic times call for desperate measures: ten contestants commit to a grueling endurance competition in hopes of winning a pick-up truck. The premise is simple: last man (or woman) standing with a hand on the hardbody wins. And while in other more experienced Broadway hands that might have been the starting point for a detour into fantasyland, the writers of Hardbody, employing an effective soundtrack of blues, gospel, and honky-tonk, have crafted a sincere portrait of the dimming American dream. In short, they don’t insult the intelligence of the audience. These are real people, small-scaled and human; a cultural cross-section of small town Texas. And if the show doesn’t wow you with literal pyrotechnics, it still touches your heart. Could there be a bigger prize at stake than the elusive American dream? Whether it’s real or not, well, that’s another musical for another time, but everybody loves a winner still the same. Sue Mengers would have been the first to agree with that statement, too. Hollywood’s first female superagent came from poverty, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany. In that uniquely American way she invented herself, and by the 1970’s she represented almost every major star in Hollywood in addition to being the town’s most renowned hostess – one who could make a career with an invite to one of her twinklie-studded dinner parties. Bette Midler has been lured back to Broadway after a 30-year absence to star in I’ll Eat You Last, playwright John Logan’s solo portrait of Mengers now at the Booth Theatre, and the result is an ecstatic synergy of two talented foul-mouthed divas with a gift for the gab who hold their audiences spellbound. Ok, maybe it’s not Chekov, but who doesn’t enjoy a juicy night of gossip. And straight from the horse’s mouth no less. “Think of me as that caterpillar from ‘Alice in Wonderland,’” Sue seductively tells us from her couch at the top of the show, radiant in a flowing muumuu and seemingly as immovable as Gertrude Stein. “The one with the hash pipe.” And for the next 70 minutes she lights it up and we breathe deep the ruthless, rarefied dish like it was unadulterated oxygen. But what’s ultimately so appealing about Mengers is not her quickness with a vulgar turn of phrase – though in Midler’s hands it is an art, beautifully perfected – it’s that in an industry built on so much ego and bullshit she heedlessly managed to (mostly) tell the truth. In a male-dominated field, she worked her way to the top through pluck, charm, and a legendary wit. We love her in spite of the excesses she might represent because her version of the American dream wasn’t won by luck, it was built through sheer force of will. And that’s showbiz, kids.

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