By Karen Isaacs
Buyer & Cellar, which now at TheaterWorks through Feb. 14, was a big hit off-Broadway in 2013. It is now becoming a hit in regional theaters – in part because it is a one person show. In fact, Westport Country Playhouse will present the play this summer. But is also a hit because it is a well written, entertaining play.
As Alex (played by Tom Lenk) tells us at the beginning of the show, some of it is based on reality, but most is pure fiction. The reality is that Barbra Streisand wrote a book, My Passion for Design, in 2010. This coffee table book for which she also did the photography is about the interior design of her homes including her then new home in Malibu. Streisand is a major collector – of everything from dolls, to vintage clothes, antiques, paintings and tchotchkes.
Another reality is that Streisand decided that the best way to store and showcase her multiple collections, which could all be displayed in her residences, was to create in the basement of a secondary building on the premises a mall of small shops each devoted to displaying one category of collection. She models this after Winterthur, the Delaware museum.
If that is what is true the play, what is fiction? The fiction is that Streisand hired someone to staff the shops – dusting, arranging, and sometimes interacting with her when she visited “her” mall.
Alex Moore is the out of work actor who is interviewed by Streisand’s assistant and hired. He whiles away the days, dusting, re-arranging and fantasizing about meeting the great Streisand. One day, it happens: Barbara comes down to the mall and, in the doll shop, Alex “sells” her an antique doll. Alex uses his acting chops to create a reality for her. He even refuses to negotiate the price of the doll, though Barbra ultimately triumphs; she just “happens” to find a coupon that brings the price down to exactly what she wanted.
Streisand begins to visit more frequently, though there are still long days of nothing to do for Alex. One night, Streisand wants him to stay late so that her dinner guests can some down to get frozen yogurt – yes, there is a sweet shop with both popcorn and frozen yogurt machines! Of course, no guests arrive but after they leave, Streisand does. And just a few minutes later, her husband James Brolin arrives wanting another frozen yogurt.
All goes well – he even “coaches” her as she thinks about a film remake of Gypsy (this was really talked about, but has not come to pass).
But as can be expected, one day he annoys Streisand and he is gone.
Tom Lenk as Moore tells us all of this. He doesn’t try to totally imitate Streisand but he has got some of her gestures and the quality of her voice down pat. He also plays Brolin, the assistant, and his boyfriend Barry, a frustrated Hollywood writer, who is not a Streisand fan. He manages to effectively suggest these different characters.
More is a proudly “out” gay man and Lenk, as directed by Rob Ruggiero plays him as such. He may even overly exaggerate gay characteristics in his performance, but it is still endearing. At times it feels like he is “dishing” with friends.
One person plays can be problematic if the playwright depends on doorbells, letters and phone calls to get information or action across to the audience. Jonathan Tolins, the playwright avoids this very effectively by having multiple characters interact with Alex.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella has created a set that can be both the stores and Alex’s apartment. Some of the design are reminiscent of actual photos in the Streisand’s book. The lighting and projections by Rob Denton help to set the various scenes.
This one-act show runs close to two hours; while I thoroughly enjoyed it there were moments when I checked my watch. To me, that is a sure sign that something is “amiss” either in the performance or, more likely, the play. Repetition only works in moderation.
But whether you are an avid Streisand fan, a casual fan, or not impressed, this is a fun evening.
Buyer & Cellar is at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. in downtown Hartford, through Sunday, Feb. 14. For tickets and information call 860-527-7838 or online at theaterworkshartford.org.