If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
"Buyer and Cellar" in Streisand's Basement
You don’t have to be a devotee of all things Barbra Streisand to appreciate “Buyer and Cellar”, but it couldn’t hurt. Jonathan Tolins’ hit off-Broadway comedy will be of special interest to anyone who has committed to memory the name of the diva’s first husband, her initial Broadway show and the number of Oscars she’s won. The popular solo show, now one of the most produced plays in the country, is currently in performance at TheaterWorks in Hartford.
The clever premise of “Buyer and Cellar” is a fantasy of sorts. Mr. Tolins happened upon Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book, “My Passion for Design”, which detailed in both stories and pictures how she converted her basement into a private shopping mall. Several tony boutiques line the cellar and are filled with the singer’s possessions from her numerous films and stage projects. The play’s narrator is an out-of-work, gay actor (the likable Tom Lenk) who has been offered the job of “salesperson”. He is tasked with keeping the shops tidy, watching the frozen yogurt machine and play acting with his one and only “customer”, La Streisand, who insists on being called “Sadie”.
“Buyer and Cellar” seems initially like a one-joke affair or an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit, but the genius of Tolins’ fantasy is that he digs deeper exploring more serious topics of celebrity worship and the price of fame. The winning Mr. Lenk, who played the role last summer at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, doesn’t imitate Streisand but he suggests her quite wittily with his diva posturing and long fingers which, you swear, are blessed with the singer’s signature lacquered and manicured nails. He also plays Babs’ rather butch personal assistant, his anxious agent, James Brolin and a boyfriend, Barry. It is the wonderfully snarky Barry who manages to bring Alex down to the earth whenever he starts to rhapsodizes about Barbra.
Most of this works very well but it is telling to note that the original off-Broadway production had a running time of at least 20 minutes less than the TheaterWorks incarnation. Under Rob Ruggiero’s somewhat leisurely direction, the actor has been allowed far too many pauses when he registers audience reaction or is hammering home a gesture that doesn’t need help. This is especially noticeable in the latter half of the play, which grows a little tiresome.
In addition, Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set design, which resembles a plush powder room, is more than what is really needed for a piece where your imagination should be allowed to take over. Lenk is a good enough actor to let us know exactly what we’re seeing. Rob Denton’s various video projections are also fuzzy, too literal or just unnecessary here.
Still, there are plenty of big laughs in Mr. Tolins’ astute comic gem (when Streisand produces a discount coupon, it almost stops the show). Dare I add that there are also some lovely poignant moments, too? In all, it’s a play that even its subject matter might heartily endorse.
“Buyer and Cellar” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through February 14. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.