As the theater season draws to a close, a local company is offering a pair of productions in which gay icons play significant roles, albeit in very different ways. The company’s smaller performance space features the musical drama End of the Rainbow, a dramatization of the last weeks of Judy Garland’s life (see my blog post). At the same time, across the lobby on their main stage, is Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar, a one-man comedy about the fictional experiences of a struggling actor working, all too briefly, on the Malibu estate of Barbra Streisand.
Buyer & Cellar opened in New York in February 2013 at a small theater before beginning its well-received Off-Broadway run in June of that year. Brooklyn-born Tolins is an experienced writer/actor/producer. As a playwright, he’s probably best known for his 1993 play Twilight of the Golds. I’d heard good things about Buyer & Cellar from a friend who’d seen the national tour so I had a vague idea that show was a comedy with a gay sensibility. When I saw a local production on the schedule I decided to buy a ticket.
On its face, the plot is simple. It is the unlikely story of Alex More, an unemployed actor who takes a job as a curator, of sorts, for the collections in the basement of a barn on Barbra Streisand’s estate. They take great pains to point out that the story is entirely fictional and inspired by Streisand’s 2010 book My Passion for Design. In the course of a 100-minute monologue, performed without intermission, Alex describes his encounters with Streisand and the effect they have on his life. At the beginning Alex admits to having only a casual interest in Barbra. His epiphany comes once is he accepts the job and encounters the dress she wore while singing “People” in the original stage production of Funny Girl. “I was a little girl in Fatima, blinded by a vision of the eternal”. The gay sensibility was on full display.
The play is witty. Alex describes La Streisand’s attire as looking “like something Donna Karan might design for Dorothy Zbornak” (Bea Arthur’s character in Golden Girls). He also describes Streisand’s famous fingernails as “long enough to make a statement: ‘No I don’t play piano or type my own blog, so fuck you’ “. As funny as the cattiness is, it is not what makes Buyer & Cellar worth seeing. Were that the scope, it would be simply a gay man gushing about a gay icon. That’s not theater. That’s brunch.
What makes the play interesting is the poignancy of Alex’s emotional journey from star-struck to enthralled to disillusioned. He describes it all in very human terms and we get a reflected glimpse of Streisand as a human being, at least as she exists in the mind of the playwright, and not just as an icon. At the same time, the story of his adventures in the rarefied world of Streisand’s Malibu are interspersed with glimpses into his relationship with his boyfriend, Barry. It is the relationship with Barry that roots the narrative in the real world and, more importantly, shows the audience the consequences of Alex’s emotional investment in Streisand’s world.
I attended the show on a Wednesday evening. The performance was well attended but most of the audience were subscribers, straight couples of ‘a certain age’. In the first few minutes I was slightly uncomfortable at the audience’s reaction to the character of Alex. I had a strong sense they were laughing AT Alex rather than at his story. I thought this would be a long 90 minutes if we were there for a gay minstrel show. Happily, that turned out not the be the case. I don’t know what the rest of the crowd experienced the play. I found it laugh-out-loud funny while still being touching and very, very human. I’ll always show up for theater like that.