The Many Faces of Babs: “Buyer and Cellar”
By Brooks Appelbaum
If you were fortunate enough to see TheaterWorks’ enchanting production of Jonathan Tolins’ one-man, many-layered comedy, “Buyer and Cellar,” last January and don’t think you need to see the play twice, think again. Westport Country Playhouse has scored a major coup in bringing the show’s original star (Michael Urie), director (Stephen Brackett), and creative team to its stage, but more importantly, the two terrific productions couldn’t be more different. At Westport, through July 3, Urie and Brackett eschew any hint of realism, making room for some of the most skillful stand-up storytelling (though Urie flies, skips, and dances through the show, rarely standing) that you’re likely to see in a long while.
The premise of “Buyer and Cellar” is a delectable mixture of fact and (mostly) fiction. Playwright Tolins begins with fact: in 2010 Barbra Streisand published a coffee table book called, “My Passion for Design,” in which she (the principle photographer, of course) uses her own sumptuous property (replete with main house, barn, and churning mill) to illustrate her. . . well. . . passion for design.
That passion becomes surreal on the specific pages describing Barbra’s basement (“cellar”), where she stores all the items she has collected over the years that don’t fit into the main house. Barbra’s basement is an indoor mall comprised of cobblestone paths that wind around tasteful shops (or “Shoppes,” as the Gift Shoppe is called): Bee’s Doll Shop, The Frozen Yogurt Shop, the Antique Clothing Shop, and more. Remember, this part of the book -- and play -- is fact.
Tolins imagined the rest of “Buyer and Cellar.” Wouldn’t Barbra need an employee to manage the mall? I mean, all that dusting! And wouldn’t she have a yen for frozen yogurt once in awhile? Of course she would! Enter Alex More (Urie), a very down-and-out actor, desperate for a job of any kind. After Urie explains the above, careful to draw a hard line between what is real and what is not, he becomes Alex, becomes employed as Barbra’s cellar-keeper, and embarks on a strange, wonderful, and ultimately poignant journey. As Barbra meets Alex during her visits to the mall, and as they come to know one another, she reveals . . . well, I urge you to discover for yourself all that she reveals.
Urie assures us, at the show’s beginning, that he won’t “do” Barbra, since she has been impersonated so many times before. However, in telling Alex’s story, he suggests the star with a sweep of hair off her forehead, an incline of the head, a subtle but familiar accent. She is there with Alex, make no mistake. “Alex” also wonderfully suggests the initially dragon-like Sharon, who manages his employment; Barry, his boyfriend; and Barbra’s husband, James Brolin, as well as some minor and hilarious characters along the way.
“Buyer and Cellar” is enormously enjoyable as a work of brilliantly pixilated imagination and as a showpiece for the terrific Urie. The designers, too, demonstrate how minimalism can contribute both to focusing our attention on the acting and sharpening our own powers of vision. Kudos to Andrew Boyce (Set), Jessica Pabst (Costume), Eric Southern (Lighting), Stowe Nelson (Sound), and Alex Basco Koch (Projection), as well as Sam Pinkleton (Musical Staging).
In addition to the all the fun, however, we are invited to consider celebrity culture through numerous lenses: the star-struck, the bitterly jealous, and the matter-of-fact. Of course, we see the world through Barbra’s lens as well. And trust me, her film, “The Mirror Has Two Faces” (which provides a hugely funny set piece in the show) has nothing on the multiple reflections presented in this beautifully performed, hilarious, and poignant theatrical event -- an event almost as delightfully zany as the actual “cellar” itself.