At the beginning of Jonathan Tolins’ riotous one-man comic fantasy Buyer and Cellar, Brian McDonald, who plays struggling actor Alex More, produces a line from the hit song “The Way We Were”:
Memories light the corners of my mind
He then proceeds to define for the audience the meaning of “corners.” In addition to the obvious mathematical definition of a corner being a place where two perpendicular lines meet, it also references a “remote, secluded or secret place.” This is the locale where Buyer and Cellar takes place. But it’s not just any corner, it’s the basement in the poshly decorated Malibu home owned by none other than the notoriously self-sequestered superstar Barbra Streisand. An inveterate shopper by nature, Streisand is unlike other voracious collectors, who hoard their acquisitions into stacks, files, boxes, display cases, or storage units. Instead, Streisand created a virtual shopping mall in her basement (modeled after the Winterthur Museum in Delaware), with individually themed rooms (an antique clothes boutique, a doll shop, etc.) set up so that she can relive her shopping experiences.
This was all that Jonathan Tolins needed to create a funny, but bittersweet examination of one of the curses of being a celebrity, seen through the eyes of the fictional Alex, who takes on the job of shopkeeper and curator of Streisand’s unique one-customer mall. Buyer and Cellar made its debut January 27 at the Rubicon Theatre Company, starring the inordinately talented McDonald, who also serves as the theater’s artistic director.
Buyer and Cellar is a unique play that is being staged less than an hour from where the real subterranean private shopping mall exists, and one can’t help but wonder if Babs herself might suddenly show up in the audience, correcting elements of the production and/or storming out in a defiant huff. Streisand’s mercurial eccentricities are well-known to the public. Her attention to detail is manifested in the meticulous decoration of her home, which was depicted in her book My Passion For Design, published in 2010. A copy of the book becomes a prop for McDonald, who tells Alex’s story as a series of conversations, which he is re-playing for his boyfriend Barry, with Alex playing all the parts: Barry, Streisand’s officious caretaker Sharon, actor James Brolin, and Streisand herself.
Alex, we learn, was fired from his job as the “Mayor of Toontown” in Disneyland after getting into a tempestuous altercation with an eight-year-old. (“There’s a reason they call it Mouseschwitz,” he mutters.) He is thrilled when his agent lands him his next gig, as the private curator of La Streisand’s ersatz mall. When he arrives at Streisand’s secluded Malibu estate in his decrepit Jetta, he is greeted by Sharon and shown to the basement. Seeing all the costumes, movie memorabilia, and collectibles, he effuses, “It was thrilling!…for a minute” and then begins to recognize the bizarre position he has been put in. After days of dusting and polishing, the bored and confused Alex is shocked when Streisand herself descends the staircase to the cellar (signaled by pink lighting and the sound of a tinkling bell). Alex soon realizes he was chosen to play a part in a weird role-playing game in which Streisand wishes to re-create her shopping experiences as the two bargain over the purchase of an antique doll named Fifi. Alex plays along with Streisand, refusing to budge on the price he arbitrarily sets until she manufactures a way to get what she wants at the price she’s willing to pay. (We won’t give away how she does it, but we all do it if we can.)
As Alex, Brian McDonald has the audience in the palms of his hands as soon as he bounds out on stage, effusive, flamboyant, and more than just a little gay. Through his body language, facial expressions, and slightly altered voice, McDonald plays all the parts well, without confusing the audience. A hand-on-hip indicates the standoffish Sharon, a casual adjustment of his buttoned-down sweater represents the haughty Streisand. As McDonald tells the audience in the show’s preamble, he doesn’t “do” Streisand’s voice, but there are elements of her Brooklynese accent that come across in their “conversations” and they work beautifully. Best of all is McDonald’s depiction of the fussy Barry, a would-be screenwriter and devoted TCM movie fan who thinks Alex is spending just a little too much time over at the Streisand estate and is getting jealous. Their manic arguments are wheezingly funny and McDonald has the audience in stitches from curtain to curtain. Strewn throughout the script are references to Streisand’s movies, hit songs, and inside show-biz gossip fodder about Babs’ procession of male consorts over the years and her infamous punctiliousness, some of which rubs off on Alex by show’s end.
In addition to being a supremely funny and creatively challenging concept, Buyer and Cellar also comments on the loneliness of celebrity and the psyche of the incurable collector. When she became a superstar, Barbra Streisand gave up her freedom to anonymously mingle with the masses. As many collectors have realized, the thrill of buying a desired object is often like a drug high: a surge of euphoria crests at the moment of acquisition, but is followed by an insatiable need to repeat the feeling again and again, like the injection of an addictive drug. Through his play, Tolins posits that Streisand created her underground sanctuary so that she could relive those moments of euphoria, with the unsuspecting Alex serving as her foil and, eventually, her friend and confidant. Initially, she asks him to call her Sadie as she plays the part of a customer (“You have nice things here!” she gushes, looking over her own possessions) but haggles with him over the price of the doll. As they get to know each other, Streisand reveals how she grew up in near poverty in Brooklyn and now surrounds herself with “stuff” as protection, the items representing positive memories of her career and her passion for design. Whether this represents the truth or not is anyone’s guess, but Buyer and Cellar does show us the other side of being a celebrity, where adulation by anonymous masses is not a salve for the pain of loneliness.
Their relationship grows so that Streisand even considers making a return to Broadway as Mama Rose in a new production of Gypsy, with an eager Alex, who once appeared in the show as Herbie, helping her rehearse by playing all the other parts.
McDonald’s constant role-playing makes Buyer and Cellar seem more like a stand-up comedy routine rather than a play. Part of the reason is that the show doesn’t require a re-creation of the actual shops and items in Streisand’s basement, which are left to the audience’s imagination. A few sound effects, such as those of Streisand’s noisy frozen yogurt machine, enhance the fantasy, but Mike Billings’ spare set design is restricted to a sofa, a plush chair and coffee table, and a center stage curved staircase from which the invisible Streisand appears. McDonald is so good, he doesn’t even need a theater to do this show; he could do it on a street corner and get the same wild, enthusiastic response that he got from the audience.
The production is the last for Rubicon’s resident artist and director Stephanie Coltrin, who will be curtailing her frequent appearances at the theater as she moves on to Hollywood for her next opportunity. Buyer and Cellar is a tour de force for McDonald, who is magnetic, charismatic, and uproariously funny in all of his characterizations.
Buyer and Cellar plays through February 11 at the Rubicon Theater Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar (note that McDonald will be participating in talkback sessions on January 31 and February 7).