Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This could be grist for a pithy diatribe against the top one percent and play into our presidential candidate debates, or it could be the launch pad for a hilariously droll play that pits an out-of-work actor against the owner of just such a shopping mall in the barn basement: none other than Barbra Streisand. Right now, I will take the latter, no contest.
Buyer & Cellar, written by Jonathan Tolins, made a splash off-Broadway in 2013 and is now having its Minnesota premiere in a shiny production at the New Century Theatre. The one-man play is inspired by the fact that Barbra Streisand wrote a coffee table book titled "My Passion for Design," published in 2010, describing in photographs and flowery text every inch of the home she designed for herself in Malibu. One feature of that home is just such a shopping mall in the basement of her barn, designed in the style of an old world street and composed of shops with quaint faux facades housing such "merchandise" as Ms. Streisand's doll collection, period dresses from stage and studio wardrobes, gift items, and antiques. It truly existsyou can see for yourself on the glossy pages of the book. That is the reality behind the fantasy Tolins spins.
In that fantasy, Alex (the out-of-work actor, played to perfection by Sasha Andreev) lands a job as the sole attendant of this little mall, and his responsibilities include dusting, rearranging the merchandise to keep it looking fresh, and being ready to wait on any customersthough only one customer, one very special customer, is expected.
Alex admits that, though he is a gay man, he has never been a Barbra queen (not even a Judy queen), but he becomes enamored with his work, especially when she actually descends into the mall to shop for a doll. This initial encounter, hilarious in ways you should find out for yourself, leads to an actual relationship between Alex and Barbrasort of, maybe one sided, maybe all an illusionbut one that takes hold of Alex's being. This is very dismaying to Alex's boyfriend Barry. Barry, who is a Barbra queen, is at first thrilled by Alex's assignment, but soon becomes disparaging of Alex's enthusiasm for his new "friend," and cynically derides her manipulations of Alex's affections.
Alex continues to become more enmeshed in his employer's life, even at one point becoming her acting coach (remember, Tolin's wrote this as a fantasy), further alienating Barry. It comes together full circle to an ending that feels totally satisfying and true to the context of a fantasy.
Buyer & Cellar has an abundance of laughs, both in the witty writing (when Alex reads to us from the back of Streisand's coffee table book "Principal photography by Barbra Streisand," he stops in mock amazement, palm of hand to check, and exclaims "How did she ever get her?") and the humor built into the absurdity of the situation itself. For example, why does Barbra Streisand even have a barn? (An answer to that riddle is actually offered near the end of the play, though it too may only be part of Mr. Tolins' fantasy). As the play merrily rides along, it picks up some serious notions about the true nature of friendship, the lure of celebrity, and the need to find meaning in our livessome, enough to feel moved by the play's ending, but not enough to slow down the sheer enjoyment on hand.
Sasha Andreev is the sole actor on stage, primarily as Alex, but also taking on Ms. Streisand, Barry, Sharon (Streisand's tough-talking household manager), and Streisand's husband James Brolin. Each one becomes alive with changes in voice, facial composure, and posture, and he moves seamlessly between these characters. As Alex, he is adorableboyishly handsome, willing to suspend disbelief when an unbelievable opportunity comes his way, hopeful of something great taking shape in his life with a kind of innocence that can either be his saving grace or his downfall.
Director Wendy Knox brings out the best, both in Andreev's performance and in the play itself, allowing the 100 minutes without intermission to move with steady pacing, and always maintaining audience interest. The stage is set-up simply, with a plush chair and a plush settee giving the faintest hint of Streisand's ornate décor. Projections let us know when we are in Hollywood, Malibu, the grounds of Streisand's estate, the basement mall, or Alex's own drab apartment.
One man or woman plays can be effective showcases for actors, but rarely have the internal strength of a full blown play that provides for interaction between characters on the stage. Grounded, mounted by Frank Theatre in 2014 (also directed by Knox) is a notable exception; now Buyer & Cellar is another. Though far lighter in tone, it achieves the same success in creating a story arc that takes a perplexing start, creates a unique world, draws us to care about the central character, and arrives at a gratifying close. It belongs high on the list of shows to see this spring.
Buyer & Cellar is presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust. It continues through April 24, 2016, at the New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $34.50 - $39.50. For tickets call 612-455-9525 or go to www.hennepintheatretrust.org/events.
Writer: Jonathan Tolins; Director: Wendy Knox; Set and Props Design: Erica Zaffarano; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Dan Kukich; Projections Design: Megan Reilly; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhoades.
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Alex, Sharon, Barry, Barbra, James)