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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Buyer & Cellar
By Jon Magaril
The shiny surface of Jonathan Tolins' text trades on the audience's familiarity with such cultural mainstays as Streisand, Oprah, Garland, and Disneyland. A second hearing reveals the superb craftsmanship filling every moment. Tolins may mock Streisand's obsessive perfectionism, but his play gives her a run for her money by making sure each line has a pay-off.
Credit Tolins with recognizing fertile ground for satire in Streisand's decision to build an underground street of stores in her Malibu basement. He invents Alex More, an out-of-work actor with retail experience and a boyfriend named Barry who's well-versed in all things Barbra. Manning the mall of brand new "olde shoppes," Alex serves the lady of the house when she decides to visit and tells all about his experiences by playing every part. The jokes come easily, but as enacted by Urie's Alex, Streisand ultimately moves beyond parody to pathos.
The Brooklyn diva is depicted as a slave to a miserable childhood lacking all physical and emotional comforts. She's compensated ever since by ordering all aspects of her life so that everything is in just the right place at all times. She's found kindred spirits of a sort here. Tolins, director Stephen Brackett, and Urie demonstrate an estimable attention to detail throughout.
For Tolins, Streisand's upscale tastefulness proves a cold "passion." Her refusal to surrender to anything outside her control renders her incapable of experiencing sustained joy. The Buyer & Cellar creative team, on the other hand, never lets its consummate good taste get in the way of showing us a great time. Further, the mockery on display is softened by a warmth that should melt the indignation of even the most died-in-the-sissel-wool Streisand fans.
The onus is on Urie, who's up there all by his lonesome delivering one hundred minutes of non-stop text. The piece would unravel if he fumfered too much or lost focus. Alternately, too firm a grasp on his gargantuan task would squeeze the life out of a breezy script that demands a lightness of touch. Urie strikes just the right balance. While his line readings don't seem to have varied much from the first week of the New York run sixteen months ago, his performance still seems fresh as a daisy.
Brackett has renovated his staging by taking advantage of the Mark Taper Forum's amphitheater structure. For the prologue, he has Urie enter through the house and perch informally at the corner of the thrust stage. Not yet in character, he stresses that the plot is fiction, thereby indemnifying Tolins against potential legal charges. The new blocking immediately establishes more of an intimate rapport between the audience and actor than the much smaller off-Broadway venue, where the actor took one step in from the wings and remained all the way over to the side. This staging also brings greater clarity. When Urie starts the play proper here, he stands for the first time onstage as "Alex."
The prologue also serves to temper our expectations. The actor informs us that he "doesn't do" Streisand: "There are plenty of other people who do her. Some of them are even women." Urie's telling the truth: his Barbra is nowhere near a convincing vocal impersonation. There's some Scooby Doo in there, along with a few Cher-isms thrown in for good measure. But over time, Urie persuasively conjures an up-close-and-personal sense of a formidable woman who can't let her guard down due to personal temperament and professional necessity. She's spent half a century as a legend, surrounded incessantly by people who want something from her.
The lack of vocal verisimilitude helps the play's more universal notes ring louder. While the play whizzes along on gossamer, gossipy wings, Alex's deepening bond with Babs echoes all relationships marked by an imbalance of power. Narrative tension is created by the question of whether Alex will get invited upstairs into Streisand's more personal zone. But most anyone will be reminded of a relationship with an employer, teacher, politician, or the like where one could never quite stay toe-to-toe on even ground.
Less translating needs to be done in LA where celebrity culture dominates. And the set, even without noticeable alteration, seems more realistic than before. In the two cramped theaters which housed the play in NY, the design elements made little impression. Placed now in the more open and comely Taper, Andrew Boyce's stage design, Alex Koch's projections, and Eric Southern's lighting convey a spare elegance.
Buyer & Cellar is a salable commodity. The chatty, short, one-man show with limited running costs makes few demands on the audience yet pays off in surprising ways, especially if one repays its creditable pleasures with a repeat visit.