Here’s a fact: Barbra Streisand has a mall in her basement. Whereas most people would put their stuff in cardboard boxes marked “crap”, Streisand had her basement turned into a makeshift mall. That’s the fact. Now let’s take it one step further: what if someone actually had to work in this mall? What would it be like to sit in this basement, surrounded by expensive possessions, and wait for one of the most famous women in the world to walk in? You can find out how this hypothetical would work by catching Buyer and Cellar, the last play of the season for the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
The story is told to us by the sole actor, Alex, who starts out telling the audience that this is a work of fiction and should not be taken literally. He then starts his story: a struggling actor who falls into a job working at Streisand’s private mall. While not a big “Streisand queen”, he does get excited about his job after meeting the woman herself. His opinion of her changes over time, to the point where he considers her a friend and confidant. As Alex tells his story he acts out the other characters: his boyfriend Barry, Barbra’s chain-smoking “house manager” Sharon, the Funny Girl herself, and a few more.
The one man playing all these characters is Tom Lenk (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a big deal if you’re me). One-man shows are always a tall order, and Lenk rises to the challenge in what is definitely a fast-paced piece. Lenk darts all around the large sparse set while excitedly telling his story and switching characters on the fly. His stories are humorous, somber, bizarre, and littered with a slew of pop culture references. He quips about people like Bea Arthur, Irene Sharaff, Donna Karan, and characters like Mama Rose and Hazel. Don’t worry; if you’re not a stereotypical gay there’s a cheat sheet in the program to explain any references you may not get.
Now what if you aren’t a Streisand fan? Frankly I’m not. When I learn something about someone like, “they have a mall in their basement”, I have a hard time viewing them as human. Which is exactly the point of this play: does this portrayal get to the core of who Barbra is, or is the “human” side so buried beneath the “Legend” that no one may ever see her again? This play is not a love letter to the woman. She is a larger-than-life character whom you would never meet in real life, for better or worse. Once she and Alex have bonded, she confides in him things about her private life. Lenk does a terrific job at putting such heartfelt emotion into Babs and makes the audience hang on every word (even I found myself feeling bad for her).
Then BAM! We get a scene with boyfriend Barry, a mouthpiece for the cynics. Barry says things like “Oh please” and makes a strong case as to why Streisand deserves no pity. Sure, a little girl who was never told she’s pretty is sad, but there’s no reason a highly successful and wealthy woman needs to reflect on that. Unless, as is suggested by Barry, she’s looking for sympathy. Probably my favorite thing about Buyer and Cellar is the argument at its core: “Streisand: Mensch or Monster?” (My late grandfather once called her a Communist. I never got his reasoning. I feel like he wouldn’t have enjoyed this.)
The set is large and white, for the many projections used to help set the scene. The designs on the wall and floor taper off, giving it the overall look of a trapper keeper with an unfinished story on it.Buyer and Cellar isn’t a true story, more of a hypothesis on one of the most famous and well-known women in the world. Whether you think it’s flattering or insulting is up to you, but either way it’s an entertaining and bizarre tale.
Buyer and Cellar
Directed by Don Stephenson
Written by Jonathan Tolins
Designed by Michael Schweikardt (scenery), Ted Pappas (costumes), Stephen Terry (lighting), Zach Moore (sound), Shawn Duan (projection)
Starring Tom Lenk
The shows runs until June 28th. Tickets can be purchased here.
Performance Date: Thursday, June 4, 2015