Barbra Streisand has a replica of a shopping mall in the basement of her super mansion in Malibu. She uses it to keep her collection of dolls, clothes and pretty stuff. This is true. I didn’t know that, and am surprised that Brooklyn-based playwright Jonathon Tolins is the only person who’s been inspired to write about it.
Buyer and Cellar started when Tolins joked about what it must be like to work in her private mall. The result is a solo show about out-of-work actor Alex who loses his job at Disneyland and finds himself the only staff in Bab’s rabbit hole. With the actor playing Alex also playing his cynical boyfriend Barry, Barbra’s bitter long-time staffer, and the diva herself, the playwright oddly begins by telling the audience that none of it is true – except the hoard.
It’s a strange play that at first seems stuck on a one-note Barbara obsession – and when the “People” dress comes out, that note sounds amazing as the audience gasp in unison. But it develops into something far more curious as Alex possibly befriends his boss and has to choose between lying on a perfect couch in her too-perfect world or a duller real life with Barry.
If Alex were in any other tight t-shirt than the ever-watchable, consistently-glorious Ash Flanders’s, I’d wonder what it was doing on an Australian mainstage program, instead of packing in the Midsumma crowds at the Greyhound.
In a work that could easily be as outrageous as an amyl-fuelled Barbra drag queen at 3 am, director Gary Abrahams has pulled everything back to a point where its moments of high-camp glory, snarky bitching, and bonkers-Bab-buying-her-own-dolly feel real.
It could easily be a parody of Barbra fandom, gay men, drag queens, and anyone who’s sung “Don’t rain on my parade” and made a giant muff joke. But it’s not.
Everything that squeals Barbra is still there, but it’s muted enough to let us see the people who love the “People” dress. Even Adam Gardnir’s spiral-staircase, sunken living room, pop-out wardrobe design (beautifully lit by Rachel Burke) is restrained in its campness; his “People” dress is beautiful.
Maybe that’s also the appeal of Barbra herself. She knows how to work hard, how to make her work feel real, and when to stop adding beads to a dress so that it’s closer to classy than crass.
Instead of satirising her, Buyer and Cellar have listened, watched and found the path that knows that being laughed at isn’t the same as being loved for being who you are.