Buyer & Cellar can appear as a deceitfully minimalistic play. It features one actor playing six different characters, and not a lot is asked or required of the space itself. In a sense, and perhaps paradoxically so, it’s these characteristics of the play that make it remarkably challenging to breathe life into — especially if placed in amateur hands. However, anchored by a strong and animated performance by Doug Atkins, Main Street Theater’s latest production is nothing short of a home run.
Created by Jonathan Tolins, Buyer & Cellar is the story of Alex More, a struggling gay actor who lands the job opportunity of a lifetime (or so it appears): working for the legendary icon herself, Barbra Streisand. After discovering Barbra Streisand’s book, My Passion for Design, and learning that she actually (actually!) has a mall filled with doll shops, clothing stores, and frozen yogurt in the basement of her Malibu mansion, Tolins decided to write a play exploring the hilarity of a single question: What would it be like for someone to work down there, operating this entire mall that at most is going to have one customer? When something’s too good to be true, it often is — we’re left wondering where it’s all going to go wrong as More documents his budding friendship with Streisand, being thrust on a roller coaster of comedy and simmering tension along the way.
Though the backdrop of the play is grounded in reality, the interactions between More and Streisand are fictitious. The thrust stage (designed by Marcos Everstijn) is an enormous benefit to the show, as it allows Atkins to more intimately interact with the audience — something incredibly important in a show that, at it’s core, is a retelling of events. The audience needs to be engaged, and Atkins pulls it off well — that feeling that you’re being indulged with scandalously juicy gossip is never lost.
Beyond More and Streisand, we’re introduced to several other characters, including Barry (More’s boyfriend, a struggling screenwriter), James Brolin (Streisand’s macho husband), and Sharon, the caretaker of Barbra’s Malibu compound. Atkins shifts between each character with ease, and the back-and-forth arguments between Barry and More are both some of the funniest and most dramatic points of the entire show. It’s hard to not find them endearing as a couple. But naturally, the heart of the play is the relationship between More and Streisand, which evolves from a game of cat and mouse to what appears to be a genuine bond — only for it to come screeching to a halt when More realizes that he’s being used.
How Barbra is portrayed is make-or-break for a show like Buyer & Cellar, and Atkins wisely steers clear of making her into a caricature at any point. Instead, what we’re given is subtle, charming and vulnerable. I knew all of Barbra’s classic torch songs prior to seeing Buyer & Cellar, but wouldn’t have called myself a Barbra Streisand aficionado by any stretch — yet, after seeing this show, I walked away knowing a lot more about her (a lot of real tid-bits of her life are included, even if the story line and dialogue are fiction). What’s more, I felt a desire to learn more about the timeless star. It’s impossible to fathom anyone walking away from this production not being a bigger fan of Barbra Streisand than they were prior to experiencing it.
Aided by solid direction from Brandon Weinbrenner, Atkins makes great use of the space, filling it with color and lively enthusiasm. Main Street Theater’s Buyer & Cellar is entrancing, with a biting wit and undeniable humor. It’s definitely worth checking out.