Perfection, artistry, magnificence. Which celebrity embodies all of these elements? Why, Barbra Streisand, of course. They are also descriptors of Jonathan Tolins’s brilliant writing and Michael Urie’s incredible acting talents in a “what if” confection, Buyer and Cellar, about Streisand’s impeccable collectables and design sense. The play is a mix of hysterical comedy genius, sardonic humor, and pithy, acerbic commentary laced and emboldened with truth.
Buyer and Cellar first appeared at the Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater for a limited time and moved to the larger Barrow Street Theater for an open-ended run which has received a number of extensions. For his extraordinary performance as Alex More, Urie has received a Drama Desk Award, a Clarence Derwent Award and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards. This sleeper hit of the season has been a surprising favorite considering it is a solo show. One reason is that its hilarity rolls the audience to the brink of the absurd, then pushes it over into the abyss. But we are laughing all the way, even as we smash into the jagged rocks at the bottom. What a way to go, with a smile on our faces.
The production’s superb direction by Stephen Brackett is incisive. Together Brackett, Tolins and Urie manifest the import of each line of dialogue spinning out the scenes. These are stacked brick upon brick to create a formidable and unforgettable masterwork. For example, in the prelude Urie in his affable, magnanimously natural and boyish Alex More persona sits on the edge of the stage and confides that the play is fantasy and the plot and dialogue could never be true. And though Streisand is “present” as are the other characters, Alex will neither inhabit nor impersonate her or them. He will just indicate who they are with a mild inflection here, a slight gesture there. The effect is not to astonish. It is to help distinguish the people for the sake of storytelling. Alex narrates and moves from present to past events with Streisand and others and it’s all made up. Tolins’s strategy is marvelous. We will not be guessing what events are real and what aren’t. The playwright has preserved the integrity of the show’s plot and characters as fictional fun. And yet…
There is a dark side which ominously threatens throughout the play. Like a malevolent jack-in-the-box, it springs up and startles us when least expected. During the prelude, Tolins hits us with truth. The setting is word for word real, all taken from Streisand’s design book (My Passion for Design) with extensive photography and descriptions of her “coastal home,” her Malibu compound and estate. Tolins prepared us for fiction, but the reality of Barbra’s “heaven-on-earth” reconstructed grounds, its excessive and ridiculous grandeur, becomes theater of the absurd. Streisand’s artful design includes a fish pond stocked with color-coordinated fish that synchronize with the color of the buildings, a barn with chickens that lay green eggs, a palatial mansion which is her formal residence and home with James Brolin and Samantha (her dog), and two other buildings.
The pièce de résistance is the barn’s basement, which is a street of uniquely designed shops – an antique shopping mall. Tolins’s description of the mall and Urie’s delivery are priceless, and hysterically funny. We cannot believe the absurdity of this reality. And it goes on. Alex tells us that the stores are filled with Streisand’s vast collections of beautiful antiques and sundries. She collected a lot of stuff over the years and obviously will not part with any of it, regardless of its usefulness or function. And there is a clothing shop where she has racks of outfits from her film and stage productions. This is obsession, perfection, attention to minute detail, hyper-organization. If she ever wants to revisit and view her collections, they are ready for her. And if she is hungry, the mall even has an ice cream/frozen yogurt parlor. Why not? How else should you spend your multi-millions?
This fantastic setting of shops where nothing is bought and sold and there are no customers is the stage where the seduction between “the buyer and the seller,” Streisand and Alex More, takes place. (At times, the roles reverse like in an emotional dance and Streisand is the seller and Alex is the buyer.) Destitute actor Alex has been hired as shopkeeper and caretaker/janitor. Alex is not a Streisand fan; he needs the job. His gay lover is a fan and counters with tips about Streisand and provides a good deal of humor in their interplay, especially when his jealousy escalates. He believes Alex has formed an attachment to Streisand that supersedes their relationship. The mall is where elaborate games are played as Alex and Barbra establish an unusual relationship which begins with the pricing of a doll that the buyer (Streisand) wishes to purchase from Alex, the shopkeeper. This action is ludicrous. She is purchasing a doll from herself and is trying to get the lowest price? What?
Pop! Tolins springs his jack-in-the-box. The fictional Barbra is a cavern of loneliness. She needs the stimulation of game playing with this ingenious young man, during which she can apply her creative energy breaking down the shopkeeper’s resistance: Alex cleverly offers a high price and doesn’t budge from it. In this very funny backdrop of supreme silliness, there is an overwhelming truth and it is tragic. Interpret it as you will. We see the need for a genuine human connection in a life of artificiality. We see the need for acceptance in a life devoted to never being satisfied even when perfection is attained. We see a life not in its fullness, yet wanting to be. We see a life not experiencing happiness. And it reminds us of ourselves, though this is a fictional Barbra Streisand.
Tolins, Urie and Brackett move us to the deepest levels beyond the isolation of fame and celebrity cliches about the “price one pays” and it being “lonely at the top.” They move us beyond an individual’s materialistic obsessions created by childhood poverty, when, because of the early hardships, meretricious acquisition in a life of luxury is never enough. We are looking at two individuals luring each other, selling themselves for a crumb of interest or care. The brilliance of the play is that both Streisand and Alex have become involved in this gaming which moves toward forming an authentic connection. Will it, can it last?
The problem is that this is not a level playing field. One has the status and wealth of the high and mighty. She is the owner of all that is bought and sold. The other has achieved grace, but is precariously fastened by the threads of his creativity and wit. If these ever fail him, he can be evicted at the good pleasure of the queen’s divine mandate. As the play moves toward its conclusion, we are kept in suspense, laughing in amazement as each sequence humorously tops the last. Yet, Tolins’ irony and sardonic darkness are lurking. We ruefully wonder what final clown will emerge and shake us to the core. And if he comes, will what we learn about ourselves be enough to sustain the slap of pain as we applaud the most eloquent of conclusions?
This is a wonderful show, and it has been extended once again until March. You have to see it to believe and feel the laughter. Urie does an amazing job.