“Mem’ries” light the corners of struggling actor Alex More’s mind, but they are neither “misty” nor “water-colored” given that the divinely heavenly boss-from-hell whom Alex is “rememb’ring” in Jonathan Tolins’ hilarious Buyer & Cellar, now getting an absolutely fabulous San Diego Premiere at The Old Globe, is none other Barbra herself, no family name required.
Taking as his inspiration Miss Streisand’s coffee-table tome My Passion For Design, playwright Tolins has confectioned that rarity, a multi-character play brought to life by a single actor, and since the actor in question is the incandescent David Turner, Old Globe audiences can rest assured they will be in more-than-capable hands throughout Alex’s journey through Barbra-land.
Alex assures us from the get-go that what we are about to see is fiction. “What I’m going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand,” he quips.
But no matter. Buyer & Cellar feels absolutely real, and once Alex has met the woman whose basement shopping-mall-for-one he has been hired to keep an eye on, there’s not an audience member who won’t feel he or she has been given a personal audience with Her Majesty Queen Barbra herself.
Angelinos will smile in recognition of the dire professional circumstances that have sent Alex day-job-hunting. (“I was living the life of an actor in L.A., going to auditions, doing Equity-waiver shows, making money as a ‘Cast Member’ at Disneyland.”) A starring role at the Zephyr on Melrose opposite Dee Wallace Stone in Accepting Steven has flopped, leaving Alex “broke, uninsured, nowhere” and “start[ing] to wonder why I ever left Wisconsin.”
Boyfriend Barry is supportive, but since love cannot pay the bills, Alex must look for a 9-to-5, his Disney gig having fallen through due to an incident at Toontown in which the “Mouse-witch” employee had threatened an obnoxious eight-year-old with “a churro up his ass.”
Enter Disney Human Resources employee (and one-time Matterhorn hookup) Vincent, through whose tip Alex secures an interview with Barbra’s “house manager” Sharon, the result of which is a journey into “another world, like when Dorothy steps from sepia into Technicolor” and a job “doing inventory, working the floor, greeting the customer.” (Note the deliberate use of the singular.)
Confidentiality agreement signed and uniform donned (“white cotton shirt with no collar, silk garters to wear on the sleeves, and a short apron made of the softest leather I’d ever touched. Donna Karen. D’uh.”), Alex takes charge of Barbra’s Doll Shop, Antiques Store, Antique Clothes Boutique, and Gift Shoppe.
And then one day, “A customer! No, not A customer. The customer, browsing and humming to herself. And, man, this lady can hum!”
First encounters don’t get any more surreal than Alex’s with Barbra, who calls herself “Sadie” and pretends to be just any customer come in off the street. (“This room is so gracefully proportioned. Everything is clean and well-arranged,” she tells the nonplussed shopkeeper.)
And things get even surreal-er when Sadie begins attempting to bargain down the price of an $850 doll for whom Alex has invented a name (“Fifi”) and a history involving a doll maker named Julien de la Florscheim, the French Resistance, and an escape from the Nazis. (Sadie’s eventual means of buying Fifi at a 40% discount is pure brilliance—and pure Barbra.)
Before long, Alex’s customer is no longer Sadie but Barbra, just Barbra, and wonder of wonders, she and her newest employee find themselves bonding as only a gay everyman and the world’s ultimate gay icon can.
Still, as anyone who’s ever met Diana, Patti, Cher, or the icon in question can tell you, hell hath no fury like a diva scorned, and Alex must navigate his Barbra dealings (including a late-night encounter with James Brolin) with utmost care.
Will Alex and Barbra become lifelong besties? Will our hero manage to stay employed? Will he live to tell about the experience?
Clearly the answer to the last question is “D’uh,” since otherwise there’d be no Buyer & Cellar and San Diego audiences (and Angelinos in search of an abundance of laughs a mere daytrip away) would not be being treated to the finest, funniest one-actor/multi-character play I’ve seen since Shirley Valentine.
TV’s Michael Urie originated the role of Alex (as well as Barry and Vincent and Sharon and James … and Barbra) and New York audiences (and those who caught Urie at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum) were probably there as much for “The Gay Guy From Ugly Betty” as for Tolins’ play.
Seeing the phenomenal Turner (himself no career slouch with a half-dozen Broadway credits already topping an impressive résumé) is to discover both Alex and David, and the discovery is a memorable one indeed.
The charismatic New York actor has you liking Alex from the get-go and the more you come to know both Turner and More, the more you like them both. Sweetness, sass, vulnerability … and chutzpah when needed, Turner’s Alex has them all. In addition, his sexy surfer dude Vincent, his increasingly frustrated Barry, his fresh-out-of-Brooklyn Sharon, his deep-voiced James, and above all his spot-on Barbra (despite Alex’s claims, David does indeed “do” her quite deliciously) are such vivid, distinctive creations that despite there being just one actor on stage, Buyer & Cellar is indeed a multi-character play in Turner’s hands.
No actor can create without a director, and not only has Ron Lagomarsino helped Turner shape his performance(s), the director knows precisely how to make full use of the Sheryl And Harvey White Theatre’s four-sided arena stage.
Erik Flatmo’s scenic design is simple, stylish, and absolutely what Tolins had in mind when writing Buyer & Cellar, albeit in-the-round, and Philip S. Rosenberg lights it with the imagination, variety, and flair that is a must in a one-actor show. Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design provide perfect punctuation for Turner’s pitch-perfect star turn, and costume designer Charlotte Devaux’s one outfit is just what Alex might wear when out of his Barbra-mandated uniform.
Jess Slocum is production stage manager. Buyer & Cellar’s production staff includes David Huber (voice and dialect coach), Diversionary Theatre artistic associate Anthony Methvin (assistant director), Eileen McCann (assistant scenic design), Michelle Hunt Souza (assistant costume design) and Hannah May (production assistant).
Casting is by the New York-based Caparelliotis Casting.
I loved Buyer & Cellar so much when I saw it in L.A., I knew I’d be back for more the instant I learned that it was to be part of The Old Globe season, but the question remained: Who would play Alex and would he be up to the task.
Sheryl And Harvey White Theatre, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
April 19, 2105
Photos: Jim Cox