Bette Midler and Fiona Shaw: They couldn’t be more dissimilar as actresses and, one suspects, as women. On the one hand, there’s the earthy Miss M, a vaudevillian with the soul of a burlesque queen; on the other, the cerebral RADA-trained interpreter of Euripides and T.S. Eliot. In a Broadway season characterized by no shortage of solo plays, these two dames demand attention with two of the best. Midler plays Sue Mengers, real-life and larger-than-life Hollywood agent, in I’ll Eat You Last by John Logan. It’s an alcohol- and pot-fueled tour de force of salty bons mots, ribald anecdotes and expletive-laced memories. Here’s the setup: Mengers has just been fired by her biggest client, Barbra Streisand. And she’s hosting an A-list dinner party that night! Who wouldn’t hit the bottle and light up? So much for “misty water-colored memories.” The way Midler holds an audience in thrall for an hour and a half—without getting up from the sofa center stage—that’s the laughter we’ll remember. Shaw’s Mary, mother of Jesus, is the opposite. She can’t sit still in The Testament of Mary by Colm Toíbín. She’s a sprung wire, prowling the stage, busying herself at doing, well, nothing. Here’s the setup: Jesus is dead, and his disciples, whom Mary demeans, distrusts and dismisses, pursue her, insisting that her narrative of events jive with the one they’re composing/fabricating. This is heady stuff. Nothing less than an alternative to the “greatest story ever told” that lies at the root of Christianity. There’s more. The saintly madonna of legend is a fiction: This Mary abandoned her son at his crucifixion to protect herself. As to Jesus sacrificing himself to save the world, was it worth it, Mary asks. Hell no. Little wonder Catholic groups have been demonstrating opposite the theater. And little wonder eyes and mind don’t leave Shaw as she ricochets from painful memory to painful memory. Middler makes us laugh, Shaw makes us think. And that what good theater does. Since food is so much a part of my theatergoing experiences, let me just say chopped chicken livers and a tuna melt at Junior’s fit the bill after I’ll Eat You Last, and crispy tilapia (heaped with flame-inducing minced chilies, ginger, lemongrass and shallots) at Pongsri Thai kept the gray cells energized after The Testament of Mary.
» I'll Eat You Last, Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., 212.239.6200
» The Testament of Mary, Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., 212.239.6200
» Junior's, W. 45th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.302.2000
» Pongsri Thai, 244 W. 48th St., 212.582.3392