Zach Theatre's Buyer and Cellar
A funny and surreal solo show by Jonathan Tolins
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., July 1, 2016
So you're alone with Barbra Streisand. And you're with her in the basement of her massive Malibu mansion, which, as it happens, isn't your run-of-the-mill basement but a miniature mall, with an assortment of meticulously designed shops – dress shop, doll shop, sweet shop, and so on. And you're the sole caretaker of these faux boutiques, and she's the sole customer, and she's just asked you for a cup of frozen yogurt – coffee, not too much air in the middle, rainbow sprinkles on top – and you have dished it up and are about to dust it with sprinkles, when this superstar, this showbiz legend, Ms. "Misty watercolored mem'ries" herself, grabs the cup from your hand and shoves it into the sprinkles bin until the frogurt is completely coated with colored candy bits.
That moment from Buyer and Cellar nails the surreal delights of Jonathan Tolins' play, a solo show with the strange, funny, dreamlike quality of an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Harvey Fierstein. A young actor in L.A., desperate for a day job, does indeed land a gig minding the stores that the star of Funny Girl and Yentl built beneath her home – a true thing, as documented in photographs by Streisand herself in her coffeetable book My Passion for Design – and it does lead to some one-on-one face time with Babs, which is about as weird as you might imagine. I mean, to be in what's in essence a life-sized dollhouse and be nose-to-prominent-nose with someone on the tip-top rung of the celebrity ladder and have that someone be both just how you picture her (bossy, guarded, quick to prickle, aglow with ego) and somehow ... not (playful? vulnerable? complimentary??) – how freaky. Tolins milks the humor out of not only that situation but also the lead character's awareness of how bizarre the situation is. His Alex embellishes this outlandish tale with descriptive phrases that highlight its outlandishness, as when he relates an encounter with his sourpuss of a manager at the Streisand compound: "Picture Cloris Leachman right after she found out that Phyllis was canceled." (Tolins is unafraid of mining the deepest veins of Seventies pop culture for many of these, which accounts for part of their hilarity, though for patrons who didn't come of age at that time, Zach Theatre has helpfully provided a program insert for its production that explains the most obscure of these references like they were Elizabethan slang in a Shakespearean comedy.)
What my written description of that moment at the frogurt machine doesn't capture, though, is the effusiveness with which J. Robert Moore acts it out in Zach's staging. The immensely appealing actor guides us into Babs' below-stairs mini-mall with a can-you-believe-it breathlessness, though nestled in his wide-eyed excitement is a sense that his character is telling the story in part to convince himself it really happened – a quality that makes Alex in Wonderland even more relatable and human. Moore's enthusiasm is evident in more than just his voice, though; he's perpetually in motion, pinballing to every corner of the Kleberg Theatre stage as he shares new details of Alex's adventures. However, director Nat Miller ensures that the movement has purpose and never lets us lose the narrative along the way. Indeed, Miller and Moore are careful to carve out quiet moments in this wild ride and delineate the various characters – nowhere more clearly than with Streisand, a major presence in the play who could easily become a showy caricature from a bad drag revue. But with a simple pose – hands at the throat and waist, as if protecting herself – and a soft voice seasoned with just a soupçon of Brooklynese, Moore presents this diva, then fills her with a range of feelings, many we expect, but some we don't, and that surprise creates a figure very, very human.
That was the thing about the Twilight Zone: To Rod Serling, it was a place removed from the ordinary in which people could discover their humanity. So it is with the basement at Babs' place. Amidst the manufactured atmosphere and mementos of a storied career, the artificiality and role-play, a megastar and a journeyman performer learn that they're both just people, people who need people. And watching that discovery makes us among the luckiest people in the world.
Buyer and CellarZach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside, 512/476-0541
Through Aug. 14
Running time: 2 hr., 10 min.