I’m a Barbra Streisand fan. We share the same birthday (April 24th – different years), I have all of her albums on LP and most on CD, and I own many of her films, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also fully recognize her obsessive ridiculousness. I giggled listening to her go on and on about having a pillow dyed to match a blouse her character was wearing in The Prince of Tides Criterion Laserdisc commentary (yep, I’m one of those – no apologies) not because it wasn’t a valid point but because it was disproportionately important to her, too precious for the rest of us to appreciate or understand.
It was only a matter of time before her hefty picture book My Passion for Design was parodied, but instead of an SNL skit we have a one-act, one-man play insightfully written by Jonathan Tolins that playfully pokes some fun at the takes-herself-way-too-seriously Streisand while also praising her. Only someone who enjoys and appreciates Streisand – the good and the bad – could have written something so funny and playful without resorting to being mean spirited or vulgar.
Buyer & Cellar ran for over a year from 2013-2014 off-Broadway and has toured, a rare and special feat for an off-Broadway play. I didn’t get a chance to see it on any of my New York theatre trips during that period, but I was delighted to catch the mid-Ohio premiere by CATCO during a matinee preview performance this past Wednesday, May 27th.
The story concerns how actor Alex More, boisterously played by local drag legend Andrew Levitt (“Nina West”), is hired to work in the “mall” Streisand has constructed in the basement of her property in Malibu housing all of her collectables and costumes. It is so outlandish a concept that it doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility, especially for La Streisand. Alex interacts with Barbra in improvised sessions between clerk and shopper, eventually befriending her and developing a kind of relationship that he likes to thing is two-sided when it most definitely is not. One doesn’t need to be knowledgable about Streisand for the play to be very funny as it isn’t so much about her as the idea of her, of the eccentricities of celebrity. There are plenty of quick asides that will give Barbra fans a giggle, but there is plenty else to feast on for any fan of popular culture.
Andrew Levitt gets every laugh he is supposed to like a seasoned pro, which he certainly is as “Nina West,” even if he starts out playing the part of Alex a little too forcefully for such a small performance space in the round. At my performance he seemed to speed along and project mightily until he found his rhythm, relaxing into the part about a third of the way in and tempering his performance more in response to the audience. I also saw one of the earliest previews, so I’m sure people seeing it now will see an even better performance than I did, which was very good. As directed by Steven C. Anderson in a challenging space, Andrew makes sure there isn’t a bad seat in the house, moving about naturally in all directions and really working the room. So skilled is he that after the performance I saw an audience member bend down to touch the floor, stating “I just have to see how this feels.” What looked like a multi-colored carpet was in fact painted onto the floor, yet Andrew somehow walked about on it in such a way that he convinced many of us in the audience (myself included) that it was carpet! How a performer does that, I don’t know, but I had the instinct to touch the painted floor as well.
The play runs around ninety minutes without an intermission, the perfect length for this type of piece – long enough to be substantial and short enough not to outstay its welcome. So skilled is Andrew that it doesn’t feel like he’s in the show by himself – suddenly he is Streisand or her assistant or James Brolin – and then just as quickly he is back to being Alex. It doesn’t feel contrived or dishonest, and no matter how funny and clever the writing, a real performer is needed to put it over with aplomb – and Andrew Levitt does just that.
Buyer & Cellar continues through to June 14th, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2014-2015/buyer-and-cellar