Barbra Streisand’s multimillion-dollar compound in Malibu, California surely holds many mysteries, despite her photographing much of it for a coffee table book published a few years back. Chief among them is an underground mini mall comprised of shops (or shoppes, in at least one case of signage) in which many of her personal treasures are stored. These include costumes from her numerous stage and film appearances, antiques and an extensive doll collection.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds) became fascinated with this aspect of Babs’ home when he read her book, and it soon served as an unexpected muse. Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar debuted off-Broadway in 2013 and became a word-of-mouth sensation among friends and foes of Streisand alike. It is currently on a US tour featuring original, award-winning star, Michael Urie (see our recent interview with Urie here), and is now playing at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum through August 17th. Urie carries off every role in this one-man, one-act show, including the notoriously controlling diva herself.
The primary character though in this very LA story is Alex More, a struggling actor recently fired from his job at Disneyland. He receives a call inquiring if he would be open to working for a not-yet-identified “lady of the house” in seaside Malibu. After being thoroughly vetted by the estate’s female Chief of Staff (played by Urie) and signing a confidentiality agreement, Alex is hired as the sole employee in Streisand’s basement mini-mall. As she is the shops’ only visitor, he initially spends days alone during which he dusts the “merchandise” and tends to the dolls.
Finally, the day comes when Streisand descends… and proceeds to act like an anonymous shopper. Alex quickly takes on the persona of salesman, only to discover his would-be customer haggling with him over the price of a doll she already owns! This sequence is arguably the funniest in the play, especially once the singer/actress/director/philanthropist presents a self-made discount coupon. Through the bizarre experience, however, Streisand sheds her veneer and a tender friendship gradually develops between her and Alex. Their relationship culminates in Streisand hiring Alex to serve as her coach as she prepares a silver screen comeback as Mama Rose in a remake of Gypsy (a project which was widely reported to be in development prior to the death of director Arthur Laurents in 2011).
Tolins’ fantasia explores economic differences, the perks as well as the cost of fame, and homosexuality, especially the awe with which gay men tend to regard Streisand. Most of the latter is filtered through Alex’s boyfriend, a screenwriter and TCM addict named Barry. To the play’s detriment, though, none of these are dealt with in great depth. What resounded most significantly for me in the text is the timeless notion of utopia, and the sometimes extreme lengths to which Streisand and each of us can go to secure our vision of habitable perfection.
The immensely talented, classically trained and genuinely affable Urie is splendid as each character: Alex, Streisand (whom he eerily yet amusingly evokes with little more than a slight stoop in posture, a deeper voice and an occasional invisible hair flip), Barry and, perhaps best of all, Babs’ husband James Brolin, who goes downstairs on one occasion to fetch frozen yogurt from the mall’s machine. Urie was a bit too enthusiastic when he first entered on opening night and he appeared to forget his place at one point, which I imagine would be fairly easy to do while bouncing from one character to another over the course of 100 minutes, but he quickly recovered. Director Stephen Brackett wisely provides just enough structure to keep Urie from going over the top, which also could be fairly easy for him to do. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design struck me at times as overly minimalistic but it is necessarily versatile.
I’m not sure, since I hadn’t seen Buyer & Cellar previously, but the LA production features a possibly added opening “disclaimer.” The writer and/or producers may have felt it necessary while performing in Streisand’s backyard, especially since her manager has told local press that she plans to finally see the play while it is in LA. This disclaimer seems excessive and unnecessary, even if it is comedically presented. Streisand really has nothing to fear. By the end of opening night, my affection for her — neuroses, warts and all — had only grown thanks to Urie & Co.
Reverend’s Rating: B
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.