Jonathan Tolins’ off-Broadway comedy smash Buyer & Cellar is one of those only-in-America plays. No, not because it’s about the ambiguities of diva-dom or the manic obsession of conspicuous consumption. Those themes exist elsewhere.
Instead, only American libel laws, which protect free speech and creative artists, would allow for a nearly two-hour show portraying a well-known living public figure, dealing intimately with her most deeply held fears and anxieties. It puts her on the couch, and everything comes out. She’s Barbra Streisand, and at the end of Buyer & Cellar, the season opener at Ithaca’s Kitchen Theatre Company, she has no secrets left to tell.
Although playwright Tolins has taken plenty of artistic license, many of his most outrageous conceits are documentable. In 2010 Streisand did indeed publish My Passion for Design (Viking), a walrus-sized (295 pages, weight 4.2 pounds) coffee-table book for which she provided every breathless word and glossy photograph. In its original cloth-covered boxed set, with an enclosed DVD, it was $500. Used hardcover copies still bring $79.95 on Amazon. We see a copy early in the action of Buyer & Cellar on stage, where it remains, a visual footnote to the unfolding fantasy.
Tolins’ premise is that everything we hear is narrated by an unemployed gay actor (Karl Gregory), recently fired from Disneyland, who is hired in a far more bizarre fantasyland: the Streisand mansion in Malibu. His name is Alex More (both names provide riffs), a gentile from Wisconsin, who nonetheless boasts masterful pronunciation of Yiddish, having appeared in many productions of Fiddler on the Roof.
In the basement of the barn on her estate (the “cellar” of the punning title), Babs has constructed a kind of Main Street emporium, with a doll shop and vintage clothes outlet, modeled on Winterthur, the American decorative arts museum in Delaware. Here she will display her lifetime collection of purchases, exhibiting her “passion for design,” and she can browse through all the “stores” as the only customer. Up to this point Tolins is just repeating what the book says.
Tolins posits Alex will be hired to play a faux clerk in one of the otherwise empty stores to sell tchotchkes back to the only “customer,” who asks to be called Sadie. Only she already owns all the stuff, but she loves to bargain for it.
Buyer & Cellar probably makes pretty terrific reading on the printed page, with its connoisseur’s allusions to popular culture. (“Her face? Try to imagine Cloris Leachman after Phyllis was cancelled.”) What makes this a triumph of caustic hilarity is Karl Gregory’s bravura one-man, dozen-plus character performance.
Gregory, a Syracuse University graduate, launched a national career in a series of roles at Ithaca’s Kitchen. He won the first-ever Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) award (2003) for playing 38 characters in Becky Mode’s Fully Committed. All of his characters here are sharply distinct, although he does not “do” Streisand herself, instead evoking a recognizable tone. His gruff, baritone James Brolin, however, is spot on.
Gregory’s sharpest work comes in the dialogue between Midwestern Alex and his boyfriend Barry, an incisive screenwriter with a nasal New York City accent. Alex and Barry give voice to the ambivalent love-hate relationship gay America has Streisand. Alex, and presumably playwright Tolins, might be sympathetic toward Barbra’s frailties, failures and needfulness. Barry stomps on such sentiment, however.
The most devastating moments come in Barry’s dissection of autobiographical elements imposed upon Streisand-directed films based on properties that came from elsewhere. One is Prince of Tides (1991), distorted from the Pat Conroy novel. Barry cuts even deeper with The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), in which the Streisand character, a professor of literature, avenges every slight, hurt and insecurity suffered by the director-screenwriter in life. It’s film criticism as drama.
Sharing top billing with Karl Gregory is ace director Wendy Dann, now on the faculty of Ithaca College. Expert in keeping one-man shows dynamic, Dann was the first SU Drama graduate invited to direct at Syracuse Stage with Chesapeake (2001). She keeps Gregory jumping with what looks like 500 movement cues in two hours, not one a wasted motion.