As the show opens, the actor Tom Lenk tells us that writer Jonathan Tolins was inspired to write Buyer & Cellar after coming across a bit of somewhat bizarre information in Barbra Streisand’s coffee table book about the design of her Malibu mansion: apparently, in order to store all of her extra stuff, Barbra has devised a sort of museum exhibition-like street of shops in the basement of her home. This, he tells us, is true (and he runs around the theater showing us the book to prove it). What then spins out from that nugget of truth, in the blink of an eye, is a delightful extended comic fantasy: Lenk instantly metamorphoses into Alex More, an aspiring actor who serendipitously stumbles into the job of sole salesman in Barbra’s private basement mall. The story he tells us is a (certain type of) gay man’s dream come true, as Alex gradually gets to know his only “customer” while selling her fabulous stuff back to her.
The setup is loopy, but not overly so – after all, celebrities are known to be idosyncratic, and why would Barbra build a shopping mall in her basement if she weren’t interested in play-shopping there? – and it provides Tolins with an opportunity to comically range over a wide swath of territory, including the humiliations in store for anyone trying to break into Hollywood, the gay male reverence for cultural icons like Barbra and Judy, and the vast gulf separating celebrity-aristocrats from the rest of us mere mortals. Lenk plays all of the characters, and manages the neat trick of being simultaneously generous and withering in his portrait of each. His Barbra – despite his disclaimer that he doesn’t do imitations – is recognizably very Barbra, from the Brooklyn accent and odd vocal closure to the rather uncanny way he manages to somehow narrow the gap between his eyes. But the best character in the bunch is unquestionably Alex’s hyperverbal Jewish boyfriend Barry, who lets loose his hilariously bitchy encyclopedic knowledge of all things Barbra in a series of bravura rapid-fire monologues that, on more than one occasion, evoked a hearty round of applause. It’s Barry, too, who points out the ways Barbra has come to encapsulate the strivings and revenge fantasies of outsiders of all stripes, which goes a long way to explain why the Barrys of the world would form her deepest fan base.
Buyer & Cellar also prompts some more serious reflection, particularly in its depiction of the loneliness that can come with enormous success and the awkward inability to form real human connection that besets those who attain celebrity status. But sombre reflection is really not what this show aims to provoke; Tolins is going for the funny bone here, aiming one comic zinger after another and rarely missing his mark. Some of those zingers depend on cultural knowledge that straight men or people under 40 or those who prefer books to movies may not possess (there’s a glossary in the program that may be helpful on that front), but, fortunately for those of us who aren’t fully “in” on those references, many of the best comedic moments of the evening are the opposite of in-jokes (dare I call them “out-jokes”?): as in one that has to do with puzzlement over why anyone wouldn’t like Jews (I shan’t spoil it further, but when you see the show you’ll know what I’m talking about). Tolins has a genius for the well-turned comic line, and Lenk’s background in stand-up comedy stands him in excellent stead as he brings this weird and quirky fantasy nimbly to life.