Buyer and Cellar, now ringing up sales at Triangle Productions, is a sharp and poignant celebration of gay culture and one of its divas, the fab Babs. The story isn’t based upon actual events, but most of the background is true.
Actor James Sharinghousen takes us winningly on a 90-minute ride of snarky observations, money struggles, and a clawing ascent toward intimacy. He juggles playing three different characters – a down-and-out struggling actor, a frustrated film producer, and Barbra Streisand – in a tale as strange and alluring as, well, Hollywood.
Alex More is the hero of the play, a burnt-out, unemployed actor who’s too nice to succeed in the Hollywood racket. Between endless and fruitless auditions, he’s taken the odd retail and amusement-park character jobs. His drama studies in Chicago should’ve propped him up for success. Instead he’s honed customer-service skills to pay the rent and get bread on the table. Alex wants to live in a world where you make good art and people appreciate it. Never mind the brutal competition and critics. His naiveté sets him back in the job market, but puts him ahead in the heart department.
Barry is Alex’s boyfriend and former boss at Mausewitz (read: Disneyland). Barry is a verbal-dagger-throwing queen whose endless imagination for storylines and encyclopedic knowldege of celebrity gossip makes for an atomic cocktail of classic Hollywood. Barry’s sarcasm comes off as defensive, but you get the impression he’s more grounded in reality than Alex.
Babs lives in Malibu, where she’s built a great wall between her poverty roots in lower-class Brooklyn and the opulent lifestyle of the global celebrity with millions in the bank that she’s become. She’s never lost the accent or her yiddishe heritage. In her 70s, she’s still wrestling childhood demons and the suffocating beauty standards of the ’60s. She’s a Freudian mess with lots of parent issues who doesn’t see that her “non-traditional” features created a gold stamp of Semitic good looks. She’s a taskmaster of perfection. As with most divas, “all is forgiven,” because the art is genius. “I always knew I hadda be famous and rich – the best. Beautiful I’m not and never will be,” Streisand was once quoted.
Buyer and Cellar is a top critics pick, winning both Drama Desk and Actors Equity Awards. Friends of Babs say playwright Jonathan Tolins captured her well. Tolins met Streisand once, and in that short moment he declined her offer of a piece of Kit-Kat bar. Buyer and Cellar is the perfect instance when the craft of scriptwriting meets a ton of research and hits the nail on the head.
Triangle’s production is energetic, but doesn’t veer off into campy standup or cliches. Sharinghousen deftly gives us the tics and timing necessary for making Barry real, the doe-eyed innocence and devastation that burdens Alex, and a sensitive allusion to Babs.
How do these three cross paths? Diva reality is stranger than fiction. Babs owns a sprawling estate which she’s meticulously designed. Imagine Michael Jackson’s Neverland, but as an overwhelming homage to American colonial style. Since Babs has gangs of money, the pieces aren’t reproductions and she curates a personal museum. A lifetime of performances and buying things she was denied as a child makes her an exquisite hoarder, and somebody’s got to keep an eye on it. Putting her precious cargo into boxes or storing them just wouldn’t do for the queen of “look and feel.” In her basement she’s built an arcade mall, the kind with whitewashed colonnades, polished windows, and gold relief signs. There she stores a lifetime of stage and screen wardrobes, a doll collection, and has a candy shoppe. Here, Alex More puts on his Mr. Hooper uniform and takes care of the mall’s one and only customer: Barbra Streisand.