BUYER & CELLAR: Playwright: Jonathan Tolins; Director: Stephanie C. Cunningham
Review by Marylyn Motherbear Scott
The play takes place in a cellar. Not any old cellar, but one that is beyond compare. It belongs to Barbra. The play, freely generated out of the pages of Barbra Streisand’s book, “My Passion for Design”, takes the audience into the underground of the Malibu mansion where Barbra Streisand lives. The audience is told, in the first scene, the play is not really about Barbra. It’s “all made up … a work of fiction.”
Performed by Tristan Sample, Alex More is the main character. Alex is gay and makes no bones about it. An out-of-work actor. Even though this is a one-man-show, Alex More has other characters in tow, flowing with charm and adeptness from one to another — Barbra Herself; Josh Brolin; Sharon, her right hand command and messenger; Barry, Alex’s boyfriend. Each with unique tones and mannerisms.
A comedy, most of the lines are geared for laughter, and they get the laughter they deserve. Despite the humor, the words penetrate the heart and the mind reflects. And so we find, there is more than a good laugh to consider.
The shops built into the basement replicate Barbra’s favorite stores and are filled with her personal treasures. Someone is needed to man the mall. Out of work and in need of money, Alex accepts the job. His downstairs days are spent in arranging and rearranging the stock, from the high-end collection of vintage dolls to fanciful costumes from movies and shows. It has its own yoghurt and popcorn machines.
Alone with the whirring sound of the machines, he yearns for the rare visits from Barbra. As the unlikely relationship develops, between young gay Alex and seventy-year-old Barbra, frustrations set in, signaled in part by the machines as their whirring becomes noticeably more intrusive. The machines are also enacted by Alex (aka Tristan).
Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, thinks that Barbra, revered icon for gay men, is trying to steal Alex away and becomes jealous. Anger fuels an argument and Alex delivers one of the most vital lines in the play, “I don’t want to be a cynic. I don’t want to spend my life as a less talented person making fun of more talented people.” Though the line itself is serious, Tristan’s sometimes subtle yet skilled physical comedic acting brings a humorous slant.
Throughout the play, one liners do a fly-by for our semi-conscious awareness — headlines of critical historic events, past and present, politics, entertainment, names of movies, actors, stars. Like paper planes, in the air one moment, invoking laughter as they land, seen but for a moment before they’re gone. An instant of fame and momentary reflection. The underground of personal projection and fantasy is, perhaps, more immediate and more vital than the hidden emotions of life. Perhaps our dreams are more long lasting than headlines or footlights.
Barbra’s rare moments with Alex bring what is below-the-surface, into light — her childhood, her inability to trust, the loneliness at the top; all become lit up like a Broadway show, but stand shadowed amongst the treasures of carefully stored moments and memories, piercing the mystery of her underground stores. Alex and Barbra grow closer than might be imagined. Their intimacy teeters at a high point. The denouement. A curse or a kiss? I won’t tell. What I will tell you is a story that a local woman shared. She was given Barbra’s book by
her daughter who had cut out her mom’s photo and pasted it over one of Barbra’s book photos to show how she would look with Barbra’s hairdo. It struck me then, all who go into the downstairs mall might paste their own photo onto Barbra’s image, in reflection of the personal fantasies of childhood, hard times and good in the passing of it.
Buyer & Cellar is a poignant and deeper slice of the American pie than one might at first perceive, a bite that goes into the collective American soul, one that dreams of movie star fame and wealth beyond measure, the sweeter slice of life that might offer a salve to heal the painful parts. No matter the deeper look, the play fills the room with laughter. A comedy in its purest and most simple aspect. The crew, to name just a few — director Stephanie C. Cunningham and New York Assistant Director, Katie Dolan; Stage Manager, Alex Pierangeli; set design, Diane Larson; lighting design; Lee Edmondson; sound design, J. Alexander Diaz — offer excellent artistry in producing this play. A simple, effective, and lovely set, with inventive lighting and sound. A lovely, artistic, centerpiece. And Tristan Sample.
There is a magic that takes place so imperceptibly, we don’t know it’s happening. Barbara does appear before us, through Tristan’s subtle yet skilled projections. We “see” Barbra, dressed as only she can dress, poised and posing in certain classic Barbra poses, the tone of her (his) voice brings us an echo of the sadness and loneliness that hides behind every actor’s public persona. Barbara’s pain if not her pleasure shines through. And I do mean shines. Her pain is elegantly plain. But then, it was said the play is not about Barbra. All the characters ride on Alex’s coat tails, and on Tristan Sample’s skilled ability to deliver comedy, both physical and verbal. It is Alex Himself who has the last word. Alex, along with the audience, has the last laugh.
BUYER & CELLAR is performed at the Mendocino Theatre Company, showing in repertory with Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain. The two plays run thru Sept 4, 2016. For tix, call 707-937-4477, or purchase online at http://mendocinotheatre.tix.com/.