- Courtesy Of Kata Sasvari
- Eric Love
Jonathan Tolins starts his 2013 play Buyer & Cellar by rattling the fourth wall. The only actor we'll see or hear — though not the only character, as he brings several others to life — gives us some essential ground rules. "This is a work of fiction. You know that, right? What I'm about to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand."
With that, reality and illusion start tumbling in a 90-minute monologue that runs without intermission, generating laughs with the constancy of a waterfall. Barbra is a persistent but invisible presence, sometimes deep in the play's shadows, sometimes as bright as the giant chandelier hanging over the otherwise sparse set in Northern Stage's production. She's never seen, of course. But the main character, Alex, reenacts his conversations with her, speaking his side and hers without a hint of eye-rolling cruelty or starstruck adoration. He tells us what could be, but is not, a true story.
First, the facts: Streisand's 2010 book, My Passion for Design, presents in words and pictures the Malibu estate manifesting the twin pillars of her extravagance: good taste and the money to prove it. Among other things, she thought it might be fun to display her collections of dolls, antique clothing and other chattels by creating a "street of shops" in her new basement. This is not a metaphor; the evidence is online for the googling.
The playwright imagines the next step: an employee with a feather duster tending to Barbra's objects, prepared to assume the role of shopkeeper should the only possible customer want to visit and see if her retail world is real enough to accept cash or credit.
Tolins is funny without resorting to savagery, and if this Barbra is a remote perfectionist who's fastened on a particularly nutty way of showcasing her art of accumulation, she is nevertheless portrayed with reverence. A celebrity today, she was once an outsider who wasn't considered beautiful enough to be a star.
Alex is also struggling for acceptance. He's a gay man and out-of-work LA actor, and he needs the job in her basement. His Jetta's check-engine light beams steadfastly during his daily commute to Barbra's paradise.
Eric Love plays Alex with an exquisite blend of charm, self-doubt, generosity of spirit and fearlessness. Stitching all these qualities together is impeccable comic timing, as Love sails this monologue on the wind of the audience's engagement. Anyone telling a story can earn some sympathy, but Love uses his own magnetism and the script's clever humor to draw viewers into this character's adorably odd situation.
Director Maggie Burrows uses a light touch for the comedy, letting the fictional encounters come to life honestly, without exaggerated mannerisms. In every conversation, both characters have something at stake. Love shows ideal restraint in his Barbra, with quiet but imperial chin lifts and thoughtful head turns. This is not a camp homage but a recollection, and the comedy is based on two personalities who become dependent on each other.
When Alex reenacts his conversations with Barbra, speaking both roles, the audience sees two people frantically improvising, both struggling to preserve an illusion. Buyer & Cellar is a lighthearted meditation on the fiction of acting, from the fake basement shops to Disneyland — Alex's previous employer — to the movies and songs that made the real Barbra Streisand famous.
While the play is more situation than story, it does build to a climax, and Alex re-creates conversations with several other characters, including his scriptwriter boyfriend. By presenting past events in live dialogue, the play dramatizes moments as Alex relives them. And Tolins avoids the primary pitfall of monologues, which can become dull strings of abstract reflections. Here, the audience witnesses events and also gets the benefit of Alex's abundant wit as a storyteller.
The play makes fame itself the ultimate illusion, which this production underscores with subtle but strong visual touches. Scenic designer Jordan Janota, lighting designer Travis McHale and projection designer Christopher Ash all contribute to creating a world of rock-solid unreality.
A marble floor is banded on four sides with a white edge that glows ever so faintly under theatrical lighting. A delicate Hepplewhite chair and Queen Anne writing desk sit upstage, both pure white. The back wall has a cornice and picture frame molding. The combination of starkly open, unfilled space and a frilly little tea set on the desk make the place reminiscent of the weird white room in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Ash's projections and McHale's lighting work together to bathe the room in color that surges from ethereal pastels to decisively vibrant hues, all in response to Alex's fortunes and moods. The projections on the back wall are left unfocused, conveying emotion itself as color and pattern. The final effect is a magical form of storytelling; plot transitions are signaled in light, as formidable as drama and as atmospheric as memory.
Sound effects, from sound designer Z Worthington, also complement the action nicely, but you won't hear Barbra sing. Only her existence, not her art, is in the public domain.
In the end, Alex discovers strength in himself precisely because he accepts such an obsequious role. Barbra is a tyrant by virtue of her fame and, paradoxically, Alex becomes heroic by seeing exactly how small she's made him.
The story is, in essence, what happens when an actor tries to sustain an illusion for someone powerful enough to buy a fantasy. Love draws out the humor in a sparkling script by producing a very real character buffeted by the unreal. Watching him endure the slings and arrows of a celebrity's power over him makes for a hilarious evening of theater.