In keeping with the need for safety and social distancing during COVID-19, The Public Theater of San Antonio launches its 2020-20ONE season with a streaming-only presentation of Jonathan’s Tolins’ acclaimed comedy Buyer and Cellar.
Imagine finding yourself the sole employee of one of the most celebrated stars in the world, working in her private underground shopping mall, where she’s the only customer. That’s the conceit of this solo show, performed by Rick Sanchez.
Sanchez prefaces the play by reminding us that what we’re about to see is a work of fiction before bringing out Barbra Streisand’s actual 2010 picture book, My Passion for Design, which gives readers a tour of her lush Malibu home, setting the stage for this one-act comedy.
He becomes Alex More, one of L.A.’s many aspiring actors searching for his big break. After being fired from his job at Disneyland’s Toontown over a confrontation with a churro-chomping brat, he stumbles into a bizarre gig as the manager of the full-size mall that Streisand has constructed in the basement of her house (this actually exists).
It’s all quite puzzling to Alex, but he desperately needs the money, so he signs the confidentiality agreements that Sharon, Streisand’s gruff assistant, shoves in his face. He then assumes his post in the desolate mall whose monotonous silence is relieved only by the rumbling of the frozen yogurt machine.
Time passes slowly until Streisand herself finally appears. She browses the shops and they quibble over the price of an antique French doll that she already owns, making Alex wonder just how crazy she is. But this is just the kind of interaction the diva has been longing for, and her visits become more frequent. Eventually, their talks become more personal and a unique relationship develops.
Sanchez does nice work here, inhabiting five different characters: Alex and Sharon; Alex’s cynical boyfriend, Barry; Streisand’s husband, James Brolin; and, of course, the legend herself. The transitions are smooth — Sanchez lets you know who’s speaking without relying on unnecessary exaggeration. Sanchez is nicely directed by Tim Hedgepeth, and he delivers this two-hour monologue with nary a misstep.
Tolins’ play is tartly written without being overtly nasty. It takes jabs at the cult of celebrity while reminding us why we’re so fascinated by it in the first place. Streisand’s eccentric behavior is counterbalanced by nice moments of humanity, whether she’s awkwardly trying to comfort a distraught Alex or revealing a painful childhood secret.
But Barry, fed up with his boyfriend’s Streisand obsession, makes Alex sit down for a screening of her 1996 ego trip, The Mirror Has Two Faces, to dramatically (and hilariously) demonstrate the extent to which the star is completely self-absorbed. This gives Alex an epiphany that’s pretty hilarious.
Watching streaming theater isn’t as strange as it sounds. In fact, as broadcast from the Public’s large stage, it feels quite like you’re viewing an episode of the PBS series Great Performances.
Buyer and Cellar is live streamed from the Russell Hill Rogers Auditorium. Dates are Sept. 10-20, 2020, and showtimes are Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Streaming tickets can be obtained on the Public Theater’s website.
Photography by Courtnie Mercer.