In a blackout before the lights even come up, the first thing we hear is that heavenly voice, humming the iconic first few bars of "The Way We Were." It is likely that your reaction to this, one of most famous instances of humming in music history, will be pretty similar to your reaction to Buyer & Cellar, Jonathan Tolins' 2013 white-wine spritzer of a play currently running at Boston's Lyric Stage Company.
Buyer & Cellar is the fictional account of Alex More (Phil Tayler), a down-on-his-luck struggling actor who lands every diva-prone gay man's dream job, working in the shopping mall in the basement of Barbra Streisand's wondrous Malibu estate, immortalized in her ridiculous but fascinating 2010 coffee table book, My Passion for Design. Streisand created this mall in order to house some of her belongings, and it is complete with cobblestone paths and realistic storefronts. There is a doll shop, a gift shop, a sweet shop, and even a dress shop, where some of her most iconic gowns and costumes are on display.
Alex More wasn't much of a Barbra buff before landing the job, but he found himself quickly smitten – by both Streisand herself and the mystique of the star – fueled by her semiregular visits to her mall. An early interaction in which she haggles with him over the price of a doll that she already owns is irresistibly fabulous. More's boyfriend, Barry, also played by Tayler in his tour-de-force performance, has a decidedly more cynical opinion of Streisand, and he begins to resent not only the amount of time that More is spending in Barbra's basement but also his boyfriend's rapidly increasing devotion to her. More's relationship with Barry comes to an unfortunate climax of sorts when, in another deliciously unforgettable scene, Barry makes him watch The Mirror Has Two Faces, complete with his "Criterion Collection of snark" dissection of both the film and the motives of its star and director, Streisand.
All of this falls squarely on the shoulders of one actor, the sprightly and charismatic Tayler. From his encounters with the funny girl herself – whom he also "plays," though doesn't impersonate, to his quarrels with tightly wound, queeny boyfriend Barry, Tayler's performance is a towering achievement of comic finesse and, surprisingly, great vulnerability.
Director Courtney O'Connor has fashioned an altogether terrific production that moves at a relatively swift clip, though she knows when to slow it down, allowing the play's few introspective moments to land meaningfully. This all plays out on a unit set, a generic, semi-grand patio, designed by Anthony R. Phelps. Various pieces of outdoor teak furniture are rearranged as we travel from Babs' basement to More's apartment and back again. We always know exactly where the scene is taking place, though, thanks to Christopher Brusberg's subtle and smart lighting.
Buyer & Cellar does not attempt to canonize Streisand, nor does it goad the audience to laugh at her expense. It is in navigating the area between the two that Tolins' play manages to be successful. As entertaining as it is, it is also not without its imperfections. It's a stretch to buy the notion that Streisand would pay More to help her prepare for the role of Mama Rose in a film remake of Gypsy.
Tolins does not shy away from Streisand's "litigious" reputation, and through the imagined encounters with More we are reminded that fame does not come free, and that everything has its price. In one of the play's most affecting moments, Streisand confides in More that she's never quite been able to figure out what to do on a Sunday. Something as simple as weekend plans is almost abstract to her.
Beyond the fizz and the novelty of the play lies a somewhat melancholy examination of the disparity between people like Barbra and people like us. We won't ever really get to know our idols, but in Buyer & Cellar, we're inspired to care as much as Barbra cares and to unapologetically pursue perfection, as Barbra has, regardless of your net worth.
The relationship between gay men and their cherished divas is a sacred one, and Buyer & Cellar is an irresistible fantasia about the complicated relationships with our goddesses. For those who struggle with the concept, you might have a hard time getting lost in Buyer & Cellar. For those who don't, well, it's like buttah.
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