This amusing and astute play for solo performer by Jonathan Tolins has had quite a remarkable journey: beginning in 2013 with its limited run at the Rattlestick Theater Off Broadway, moving for its many-times extended successful commercial run at the Barrow Street Theater, and closing last summer.
The play is unquestionably an enjoyable diversion as well as essentially a show-off vehicle for a talented, personable young actor. It is currently a popular choice for our nation’s many regional theaters. Artistic Director David Saint has cast appealing, multi-talented Tony-nominated John Tartaglia (“Avenue Q” in which he originated the roles of Princeton and Rod) as the young, gay out-of-work actor who finds a temporary job as a shopkeeper in entertainment icon Barbra Streisand’s underground mall.
Notwithstanding the originality of the play’s premise, Tartagalia’s disarmingly engaging performance is commendable on many levels, but most notable for the way he handles Tolin’s battery of chit-chat and his precise, motor-mouthed delivery of them. Tartaglia will certainly keep many in stitches revealing what they might have already suspected about La Streisand in Streisandland, as an obsessive buyer as well as a compulsive custodian of her own famous and presumably fabulous collections. These consist of clothes from her films, rare dolls, and the innumerable tchotchkes that she has accumulated over the years, all peripheral players including a couple of members of Streisand’s staff who have their say coming and going.
Also peripheral is an underlying motif in the play of why gay men prefer Streisand nowadays over movieland’s other diva divine Judy Garland. Unlike the tragic, ill-fated, born-in-a-trunk Garland, Streisand is to this day the grandest self-perpetuating example of what a plain-looking, Brooklyn-born girl with lots of talent and loads of chutzpah can and must do to become and stay a star. Streisand is, as many have lovingly said about her, “a legend in her own mind.” Given her remarkable talent(s) as a singer, actress, director, author/photographer, (check out her coffee table extravaganza “My Passion for Design” published in 2010), a collector nonpareil, she unwittingly afforded playwright Tolins (“The Twilight of the Golds” on Broadway and TV’s “Queer as Folk”) a golden opportunity to poke fun at her well-known and also only alluded to idiosyncrasies.
“Buyer & Cellar” has a plot that is often as poignant as it is also paradoxically irrepressibly precious. Although he is not an idolizing member of the Barbra cult, Alex More (Tartaglia) would rather agree to wear what he calls his assigned “Music Man costume” in her mall than be dressed as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, where he last worked until he was fired (I’ll let him tell you about that). While there is no costume designer credited. Tartaglia, however, looks really cool and comfortable in the striped, hooded lightweight sweater over a white T-shirt, gray chinos,and sneakers.
There is no denying that Alex is, at first, a little nervous, not only about working for the impossibly demanding Streisand, but also by the very real possibility of actually meeting her. Will she really venture down to the subterranean “mall” below her home that she built to house her “street of dreams” i.e. boutiques? Of course, she will.
Let’s stop right here to praise the artistry of scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s setting, a triumph of minimalism, as beautifully enhanced by Alex Koch’s projection designs. While I noticed that both these artists are acknowledged in my old Rattlestick program, I have to add that the many different luminous glows provided by lighting designer Christopher J. Bailey (who was not part of the original Rattlestick team) deserve a solo cheer.
Tartaglia has a tour de force with which to contend since he not only plays Alex but also his ultra gay, if relentlessly guileless, boyfriend, Barry. But he is also right on target as the graciously condescending mistress of the manor who suggests early on that he call her “Sadie.” Don’t get me wrong, the playwright has been careful not to make a mockery of any portion of Streisand’s life. His fortes are the wit-infused conversations between her and Alex that evolve from the whimsical to the fantastical and from downstairs to upstairs.
Thanks to Saint’s crisp direction we are quickly involved in the development of a highly unlikely relationship, even as it ends up in a reality that cannot be sustained for better or worse. A lot of ferocity also goes into Alex’s verbal bouts with Barry mainly over Alex’s infatuation with Streisand and his growing obsession with her mall. That you forget Tartaglia is working the room alone is a marvel, a credit to the actor and to the playwright.
The most moving parts of the play are those in which Alex shows his sensitivity in response to Streisand’s need to indulge her own fantasies. In the funniest scene, Alex assumes the role of a doll shop proprietor and refuses to bargain with her as she tries to get it for a lower the price. It becomes clear that Alex is fulfilling Streisand’s need to quibble and to kibitz, but not her need to be either open or real with him. She does express her lifelong desire to be beautiful in a key scene. She is also willing to let him coach her in preparation for an audition to play Mama Rose in a proposed film version of “Gypsy” (actually agreed upon in real life by Streisand and its book writer Arthur Laurents).
Interestingly, the downward spiraling of their relationship begins when Alex accepts her invitation to go upstairs into the main house. How their relationship sours and how Alex’s severely tested one with the contentious Barry survives provides the play with its bittersweet resolution. Oh, and the handsome and very macho James Brolin (you must know who he is….and another choice characterization for Tartaglia) ventures below during a party for a frozen yogurt with sprinkles. That’s cool and so is the play.
Buyer & Cellar, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, through Sunday, March 29. $28 to $65. 732-246-7717 or www.georgestreetplayhouse.org.