Feasting on the Famous
By Geary Danihy
Ever fantasize about someone? You project all of your needs, wants, desires and fears onto that person until they are no loner real, just a figment, or a fulmination, of your imagination. And then your fantasies take over, start drifting down the river of “What if?” Well that, apparently, is what playwright Jonathan Tolins experienced when he came to write “Buyer and Cellar,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, which recently opened at TheaterWorks up in Hartford.
The premise: Barbra Streisand has a subterranean mall of sorts in her home, a collection of “shops” that house a lot of what she has bought based on whim, design or desire. Okay, whatever floats her boat. If you’re rich and so inclined you can fill your swimming pool with champagne.
Now fixate on Barbra, and imagine that you are an out-of-work actor who gets a call from a former lover telling you there’s a job open in Malibu, the nature of which is unclear. You go for an interview and are questioned by, apparently, a somewhat masculine female named Sharon, the dragon at the gates. You get the job, only to find that you have been hired to be a sales person/curator in the “mall,” a mall with no customers save one, who may or may not appear. Oh, but she finally does, and you interact, you get to see the essence of the diva (and be abused by her). Ah, sheer bliss!
Okay, but what really happens in “Buyer and Cellar”? Well, that’s about it. Babs has a basement full of stuff, and actor Alex More (Tom Lenk -- who was once involved in slaying vampires for fun and profit), gets to meet her and be abused by her. Trenchant stuff, right?
No. This one-man, one-trick pony show should have been a skit. At just under two hours, it is humorous at moments but ponderous at best and eventually becomes soporific.
Lenk gets to play multiple characters -- some he pulls off with aplomb, others remain essential enigmas, chief among them the object of Tolins’ fascination -- Barbra.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Alex is alerted about the job in Malibu by Vincent, with whom he has had a tryst or two while working at Disneyland. Vincent is all nervous energy, a poster boy for “Gays Are Us.” Okay, we’ll accept it, and “Vincent,” if nothing else, is certainly vivid, although the gay community may take exception to the characterization.
Then there’s Alex’s boyfriend, Barry. When Lenk channels Barry, which he does several times, the stage comes alive, for “Barry” is not only negatively obsessed with Barbra but worried, now that Alex has the job, that the diva might be attempting to steal his boyfriend. Thus, Barry delivers several soliloquies that can best be described as “Barbra-rants,” analyzing the woman’s career with an intensity that borders on the manic (and making some very fine points along the way).
Things get a little muddy when the playwright turns to Sharon and, of course, the focus of the show, Barbra. Sharon, as portrayed by Lenk, telegraphs her aggressiveness by opening and closing her legs and growling (woman as devourer!). It really isn’t a characterization, more a caricature, and it doesn’t work. And then there is Barbra, and here the evening falls apart, for Lenk gives us a person with a quasi-Brooklyn accent whose only mannerisms are to flick back her hair and stare disdainfully. It gets old very quickly.
And the interactions between the “sales clerk/docent” and the diva? Well, they border on the bizarre, for no apparent reason. One of the focal points is the diva wishing to buy a doll that she already owns. She haggles, she negotiates, she eventually shows up with an obviously bogus discount coupon. The implication is the diva is psychotic, floating on a sea only she can see. There are some laughs to be had here, initially, but the set-up soon becomes abstruse.
The basic problem with “Buyer and Cellar” is that it sets up the premise and then simply goes nowhere. There are no revelations, only snide comments, vague innuendoes and a lot of cheap shots, with some side trips to deal with some gay men’s fixations on soul-tormented female stars. Oh, the agony of it all! Oh, Judy and Maria -- where are you when we need you? There are no true, rounded characters -- even the actor Alex remains one-dimensional.
Yes, there are laughs along the way, but you come away feeling somehow cheap for having been a part of the evening. Why cheap? Well, the show is really a feeding frenzy, an exercise in “Let’s gobble up Barbra, let’s feast on her.” It’s fun, for the moment (perhaps), but as you drive home you feel diminished, somehow sullied, like back when you were one of the “in-girls” who ganged up on the “nerd” girl in high school, taunted her and teased her, and then, years later, suddenly realized what you had done, and that shouldn’t be what theater is all about.
“Buyer and Cellar” runs through February 14. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org