"Buyer and Cellar"
By Brooks Appelbaum
Jonathan Tolin’s charming, witty, and insightful one-man show, Buyer and Cellar, is being given an enchanting production at TheaterWorks, through Feb. 14. Director Rob Ruggiero has made terrific choices: first and foremost, by casting Tom Lenk as Alex More, the evening’s narrator and star. Ruggiero’s other major choice is to eschew a bare stage setting and instead work with Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella to bring us rich colors and fabrics, and with Lighting and Projection Designer Rob Denton to create intriguing projections. This opulence makes the evening all the more evocative of its inspiration: the (or rather THE) Barbra Streisand.
The pun in the script’s title comes from Streisand’s coffee table book, published in 2010, called My Passion for Design. In it, Streisand describes her basement (“Cellar”) -- but wait! Don’t go picturing your basement, finished, or otherwise. Although Streisand’s basement, like yours, houses those items she doesn’t use often (or ever), Streisand has designed her basement as a mall. And, naturally, hers is not a modern, cold, noisy, soulless mall. Streisand’s mall is a spotless, old-fashioned, cobble-stoned street of underground shops, such as Bee’s Doll Shop, the Antique Costume Shop, and, inevitably, the Gift Shoppe, replete with extra “p’s” and an “e” (as Alex notes) and a beautiful little wrapping station. All those shops, and only one customer: Streisand.
OK, that last part, about the customer, is not, strictly speaking, noted in Streisand’s book. Working from the fact of Streisand’s mall, Tolin takes us into gloriously giddy, but totally logical, fiction. If you had all those shops for your things, wouldn’t you need a caretaker to watch over those things (and serve you frozen yogurt, from the Frozen Yogurt Stand, just the way you like it, whenever you came down to shoppe -- I mean, shop -- I mean, visit)? Of course you would -- especially if you were Streisand.
And that’s where the character of Alex More (Tom Lenk) enters the story that he also narrates. Alex, an out-of-work actor, becomes the sole employee of Streisand’s mall: dusting the dolls, cleaning the costumes, and greeting Streisand on the occasions when she comes down to shop. An expert and versatile comedian, Lenk, who also plays all the other characters in the show, is, by turns, hilarious, sweet, and unexpectedly poignant.
Without spoiling more of the plot, Buyer and Cellar, in addition to being a double-edged fairy tale for grown ups, is also a razor sharp exploration of celebrity excess; celebrity loneliness; and reality versus make-believe. Ruggiero’s production -- simultaneously playful and glittering with intelligence -- is also a warmly affectionate celebration of the one-of-a kind Streisand herself.