"This is a work of fiction," actor Dito van Reigersberg announces as character Alex More in Jonathan Tolins's one-man show Buyer & Cellar, brought to life by 1812 Productions. He doesn't say it's a legal disclaimer, but perhaps it is, since Alex's story is about working for reclusive star Barbra Streisand. "This is a play by a guy named John, who only met her once."
Van Reigersberg, star of this sparkling production, directed by Dan O'Neil, wins us over instantly while explaining that he's just an actor and, moreover, won't do a Babs impersonation. The opening-night audience laughed with him, knowing that he's famous for his drag alter ego Martha Graham Cracker. He's an actor playing an actor who also plays Streisand and five other characters.
This meta-wink-wink moment turns into a hilarious, surprisingly sweet, believable tale about broke actor Alex's job as the sole employee in Streisand's underground mall, a real place detailed in her real 2010 book, My Passion for Design. He’s on page 190, Alex tells us, holding the book.
The magic of theater takes over, and I don't mean that cynically. The "willing suspension of disbelief," I've explained to students many times, is very powerful: despite knowing a story is invented, we invest in it anyway. It's not every day, though, that a character announces that fact.
Desperate after losing a Disney World gig as Mayor of Toon Town, Alex drives to Streisand's Malibu compound, which he describes as "like Monticello if Thomas Jefferson had had real money." A prim, grim manager explains that he'll work in the basement mall (like a model street at Winterthur in Delaware, he tells us, or the shops in Las Vegas's Paris Hotel, but with a "museum after-hours stillness"), wear a shopkeeper costume, and serve "the Lady of the House" whenever she shows up.
"Thank God I took that improv class at the Groundlings," he quips about their first encounter. In it, Streisand — played by van Reigersberg with a hint of that famous Brooklyn accent — dickers about the price of a doll.
Their budding relationship plays on Christopher Haig's elegantly austere white set, a forced-perspective platform that extends from an upstage wall past the edge of Plays and Players' stage. There are no side walls, just space and black curtains; the theater's distinctive proscenium arch is covered in black as well, making the set float in space. Maria Shaplin's lighting adds subtle visual variety, as does van Reigersberg's movement of a single chair, a cart holding liquor bottles, a record player, and that book.
Buyer & Cellar excels as storytelling, with van Reigersberg's likeable, energetic Alex playing all the roles as a friend would, in a casual, un-actor-y way. Boyfriend Barry's reaction to Alex's special relationship with Streisand leads to a breakup. Alex encourages the 70-ish Streisand to star in a Gypsy revival and becomes her acting coach.
While Buyer & Cellar might at first seem to satirize Streisand and super-celebrity in general, Tolins explores this strangely compelling condition with insight and empathy. Though we know it's all an exquisite fabrication, we can't help but be enthralled.