Only the best kind of show can overturn your sceptical expectations within the first few minutes. Going into Buyer and Cellar, an MTC production based on Jonathan Tolins’ script and starring Ash Flanders, I had some apprehensions. The reviews have been good since its opening in New York (with Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie in the lead) but the setup—a one person show about an out of work actor who gets a job working in Barbra Streisand’s basement—didn’t line up with my personal tastes. One person shows are always a bit of a gamble, and what did I care about Barbra Streisand? Let alone her lavish, shopping mall of a basement?
I needn’t have worried. Tolins’ script borders on being a comic masterpiece, full of self-deprecating humour, relationship squabbles and dubious childhood trauma stories. Squeezed in between the rapid-fire jokes are meditations on friendship, mentorship and the tribulations of the kind of mega-stardom achieved by few others than Barbra Streisand. Coupled with Flanders’ array of talents as a singer, dancer and talker, not to mention his impeccable comic-timing, Buyer and Cellar asserts itself as a delightful surprise and a must-see during its season with the MTC.
The plot of the play dips its toes into truth before dive-bombing into fiction. It’s true that Barbra Streisand built a shopping mall in her basement to store her things, which is just what Alex More (Flanders) tells us. He steps lightly down the spiralling staircase, humming a few bars of Streisand and flicking through her book My Passion for Design—which also bafflingly exists. Apparently, Tolins became “obsessed” with Streisand’s basement and wrote a play about it. Alex assures us no one was ever employed to work down there, but the premise of the play is: What if someone did?
From there we descend into Tolins’ fanboyish fantasy. Other facts crop up: the songstress really was born in Brooklyn and she really did have a windmill in her yard, but Buyer and Cellar is the stuff of dreams. It takes heavy liberties with an already ludicrous legend to tell a poignant tale of a young actor’s brush with greatness.
Streisand’s basement is evoked through Adam Gardiner’s minimal set design and a few nifty tricks. The stage is mostly a bare, elegant design. Two steps drop down at the front to a smaller section, where gold throw pillows adorn the stage. Alex navigates these two spaces, effortlessly embodying all the characters. His boyfriend Barry is always down with the pillows, while most of the basement scenes are up top. Rachel Burke’s lighting is excellent, plunging the stage into darkness to signify time passing, spotlight the actor or change scenes. The Sweats’ soundtrack was a fitting mix of Broadway tunes and Streisand numbers.
Cupboard doors dotted the white wall at the back, out of which slid benches, dress racks, a doll shop and even a real, working frozen yoghurt machine. Usually only one set piece at a time was on stage, allowing the audience to be immersed in what was happening, whether it was Streisand and Alex trying on dresses, James Brolin asking for a cup of frozen yoghurt, or tense altercations with irritable receptionist Sharon. This was one of the many appealing aspects director Gary Abraham handled effortlessly, providing the audience a seamless experience.
On stage for 90 minutes and commanding all of this is Ash Flanders, whom the Herald Sun has already dubbed ‘one of the “it boys” of camp theatre’. As Alex he is an affable protagonist, camp enough but never offensive with gay stereotypes, whose transformation from nervous stock boy to Streisand’s personal acting coach is entirely believable. Flanders’ Streisand is a playbook of her most parodied traits: the soft, husky speaking voice, eternal pout and slow strut. Flanders does a great job physically embodying her, but the performance is more in line with a Saturday Night Live parody than any serious attempt at mimicry.
The outstanding bit-character who had the crowd in stiches was Barry, Alex’s ultra-jealous boyfriend. Barry spits out vicious critiques of Streisand with a heavy New York accent and Jewish lilt—at once afraid he’s losing Alex and furious about his own failing career as a scriptwriter. Barry could have easily been just another angry/jealous boyfriend type, but Tolins’ script brings humanity to the character. In one scene, after Alex tells him Barbra is his friend, Barry urges Alex to “call her up”. This results in a harsh realisation for Alex about having a famous friend, who might simply be using him for her amusement. Forced to choose between his boyfriend and his fantasy land, he breaks up with Barry and runs off to Streisand, still under her spell.
It’s these moments that elevate the play above fan worship or witty snark, to something worth becoming emotionally invested in. That said, the play is lengthy for a rather simple premise with one actor. Plot developments like this act as life-preservers amid a sea of Streisand talk. Some of the idiosyncratic jokes about American culture (poking fun at Malibu’s public transport system) or Jewish terminology (“schmendrick” is Yiddish for “stupid person”, just FYI) flew over my head and wouldn’t really hit home for many Australian viewers.
Cultural differences aside, Buyer and Cellar is a play for anyone who enjoys good writing and a great performance. Despite the subject matter seeming esoteric, the comedy is universal and the story relatable in its own way. And who knows, you might come away with a few practical design tips, if you happen to have millions upon millions of dollars and a giant, empty basement.