BURBANK, Calif. – Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar is one of those clever concoctions where it’s hard to know where fact ends and fiction begins, while permitting presumably unauthorized referencing of a major superstar. When Jai Rodriquez enters, the actor makes it clear (wink! wink!) that this isn’t a true story – although parts of it may be.
What does appear to be accurate is that in the voluminous basement of actress/singer Barbra Streisand’s Malibu grande maison is a mini-mall of sorts to which this world-class diva and shopper shleps her possessions. Since her precious wardrobe apparel, jewelry, artwork, various tshotshkes are so abundant and valuable – not to mention a frozen yogurt machine – these world-class belongings are not stored per se, but rather displayed in the cellar of her chateau (presumably near Malibu Barbie). The playwright appears to have built his entire one-man show based on this premise, which Streisand herself documented in an actual 2010 vanity illustrated (with mostly her own photos, but of course) coffee-table book, the self-promoting My Passion for Design.
The gifted Rodriguez – whose credits include Broadway shows such as Rent and The Producers and on TV, Bravo’s Queer Eye and, ironically, the ABC sitcom Malibu Country – primarily plays Alex More, an unemployed actor recently fired from playing a Disneyland character so he’s currently “in between gigs.” That is, until he lands the job as the “shopkeeper” for Babs’ mini-mall. But the shapeshifting, always engaging Rodriguez also skillfully depicts Buyer’s other characters, including his boyfriend, the Malibu estate’s overseer, Babs’ hubby James Brolin, and La Streisand herself.
Over the course of 90-minutes, the relationships between Barbra and Alex – who is no mall rat – evolves. The mistress of the mall is depicted as being alternately stand-offish, capricious, imperious, vulnerable, charming, quirky and sweet. I found Barbra’s musings on Brooklyn fascinating, as I had never realized what she had to say about my birthplace and how my being born in that borough may have influenced the course of my own life.
There is also the “lonely at the top” cliché and Barbra’s longing to be conventionally pretty, which we’ve all heard a million times. At one point, Alex More – who claims to be a direct descendant of Sir Thomas More – asks Streisand about what her conception would be of Utopia – a word coined by Alex’s alleged ancestor in his famous 1516 literary depiction of a perfect society.
Buyer & Cellar acknowledges, but does not dwell on, how well informed Streisand is about current affairs and her support of liberal candidates and issues. For instance, during the play California’s (now outgoing) U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer is a guest at a party upstairs in the Big House, where Alex is forbidden to go for most of the play, as he’s generally relegated to the basement emporium and merely serves frozen yogurt there during the gala gathering. And of course, Streisand just participated in the Oct. 17th Broadway fundraiser for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. But while this play indicates the enormously wealthy performer can be quite generous, it doesn’t mention that much to her credit, Streisand has been an enormously bighearted philanthropist, donating more than $20 million to various worthy causes (according to research I did for my 2005 book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States, which features her on the cover).
Adam Flemming’s able scenic and projection designs, which include oversized eyes on the wall behind the set gazing at the audience (no, it’s not the NSA watching who’s attending this play about one of Hollywood’s best known liberals – its raison d’être all comes together in the final, imaginatively rendered scene), serve the story well, along with some help from lighting designer Nick McCord. There are just enough props and décor to perpetuate the play’s central conceit – the illusion of Babs’ mini-mall, where most of the action transpires.
The formidable Rodriquez and the mise-en-scène are well directed by Dimitri Toscas.
Buyer is a bit of a tell-all: Alex More (and perhaps dramatist Tolins) could be called “Yenta” – a gossip – instead of Yentl, as the somewhat reclusive star’s private life is pried into for public consumption, presumably without her consent or receiving royalties for the use of her likeness, etc. Buyer & Cellar contends that Alex gives Streisand the notion to star as Mama Rose (the role Rosalind Russell played in the 1962 movie musical) in a motion picture revival of Gypsy which the superstar is supposedly still pursuing. To do so, Rodriguez’s Babs contacts bookwriter Arthur – “Laurents, not Miller,” as he quips.
Buyer offers an eye-opening glimpse into this superstar’s supposed lavish, self-indulgent lifestyle, complete with her own private mini-mall. See photos of it here.
Buyer & Cellar plays Weds, Thurs., Fri. and Sat. at 8:00 pm and Sun. at 4:00 pm through Nov. 6 at the Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank 91505. For more info: (818) 955-8101; www.FalconTheatre.com.
Ed Rampell’s interview with Viggo Mortensen is in the October issue of The Progressive Magazine, and his review of Years of Living Dangerously is headlined on the cover of the November/December issue of Sierra Magazine.