The bright sparkle of this one-man comic extravaganza about the dizzying spell of celebrity is a welcome respite from the annual bombardment of holiday joyrides.
Buyer & Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA, through January 3, 2016.
By Robert Israel
Early on in Buyer & Cellar, struggling actor Alex More (played by the talented Phil Tayler) holds up an empty water tumbler. He stands center stage. Turning the tumbler upside down, he reminds us, “This is a work of fiction. It’s not real.”
He underscores this message as a protective ‘real world’ caveat, because the “famous talent” he is about to impersonate—none other than the mega-pop music star Barbra Streisand—is known to be more than a little “litigious.” He tells us that she has squashed many efforts to bowdlerize/dramatize her life and career in a series of highly publicized legal battles.
During a festive season when many, if not most, willingly abandon reality and disbelief to embrace age-old myths, Buyer & Cellar comes as a welcome theatrical treat. We seem to have no trouble suspending our disbelief and deriving lots of pleasure from images of Santa Claus with his rosy cheeks and bottles of Coca-Cola. So why not head over to the Lyric Stage, where we can go one giant fantasy step further and enjoy playwright Tolins’s farfetched story about how his character Alex More is (fictionally) hired by the diva to keep a watchful eye over the basement empire of her Malibu, California, home, where she houses her memorabilia and tchotchkes?
My reservation about the evening is not with its impish premise, but that the writing is heavy handed to the point that it sinks under its own campy weight. Tolins is overly indulgent when it comes to lavishing out details about what is housed in the glamorous bowels of Streisand’s Malibu home. Why not encourage us to use our imaginations and envisage her perfectly appointed storage facilities? Tolins chooses to club us on our collective noggins until we groan with fatigue: we never escape from the confines of Streisand’s stuff. There is no wriggle room, not even when More takes on the role of his boyfriend and we glimpse instances of their not-so domestic tranquility.
This play is all Streisand, all the time. And what a world she has created! As documented in a coffee table book she’s published, we learn that her estate—heavily gated and watched over by an extensive staff of attendants—is lavish. The grounds are breathtakingly described (naturally) and, once More heads downstairs to her basement lair, there are extensive descriptions of her opulent property, including mementos of her childhood in Brooklyn (as well as stories of her unhappy childhood). More details are shared. Descriptions coruscate from the actor’s lips. We listen until our ears are numbed.
More is being paid for his duties, dusting and chatting with Streisand during her occasional visits. He desperately needs the gig and, as a bonus, feels a “kind of rapture” hanging out in Streisand’s world. Yet even he comes to see that nirvana only lasts so long. At one point, More admits that “it was thrilling for a minute and then it got boring.” When he tells us he’s bored, well, he is speaking for some of us as well.
There is a wonderful comic exchange between More and Streisand; the actress haggles with him over the potential purchase price of a doll that she owns. Taylor’s comic timing is exquisite. But then the script repeats this kind of banter when Streisand returns and the bit wears thin.
This is where the realization that Buyer & Cellar is, at heart, a one-act rather than a full-length play would have helped. Bring out the scalpel and trim the verbose descriptions down to fighting weight. Give the audience time to digest the reams of opulence. Eliminate the all-too-frequent name dropping (Streisand’s films, songs, friendships, present and former husbands, as well as rumored and real dalliances with famous men). Cut down on the gratuitous mentions of More’s sexual couplings with his boyfriend (we hear when Alex gets lucky and when he doesn’t). Push the story away from its obsession with showbiz materialism and sprinkle in just enough tension so that the audience doesn’t become restless with the cataloguing. All of these excisions could be done without losing an iota of the hilarity and absurdity the script generates. In fact, it would make the play sharper, more entertaining. Less would be a benefit for More.
But let’s not look an alternative gift too closely in the mouth. As the year winds down and we find ourselves bombarded with high-octane holiday joyrides, the bright sparkle of this one-man extravaganza about the dizzying spell of celebrity is a welcome respite. There are plenty of laughs, provided you have the patience to wade through the wordiness. Like the fictional Christmas toy train that chugged in the now long-ago Jordan Marsh department store, Buyer & Cellar takes us to Streisand’s Enchanted Village. The catch is that, when too much time passes, gingerbread houses grow stale and crumble.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel, and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.