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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Review: Riotous Romp ‘Buyer and Cellar’ at George Street Playhouse

 

By Guest Reviewer Ruth Ross (njartsmaven)

Along with her magnificent voice, French-manicured fingernails, albums, films and concerts, Barbra Streisand is known for her many residences, furnished within an inch of their lives with high-end furniture and chotchkes. Some people might even call her a "hoarder." Using that fact (and My Passion for Design, a book she wrote and photographed in 2010) as a launching pad, Jonathan Tolins has created a fictional account of a young gay sometime-actor being employed to "curate" (read: tend) the hundreds of odd items stored in the basement of a barn on the grounds of La Streisand's estate in Malibu. There, he dusts and polishes and basks in the diva's costumes, doll collection and antiques, and even interacts with her when she comes down to survey her stash.

Entitled Buyer and Cellar (yes, it's a pun), Tolins' play, a one-man show starring John Tartaglia and directed by David Saint, is now on the Arthur Laurents Stage at the George Street Playhouse—a production that, for its cheeky virtuosity alone, you won't want to miss before its run ends on March 29.

Talking nonstop for 100 minutes—and playing multiple characters (even Babs herself)—Tartaglia keeps us enthralled by this fanciful tale, albeit one that has enough factual material to almost convince us it actually occurred. Director Saint keeps the action and talk going at quite a quick clip, sometimes a tad too quick for the audience to catch some of the words and phrases and occasionally tripping Tartaglia's tongue up too. Perhaps slowing the delivery a bit would solve both problems. (Actually, Tartaglia should be cut a break; I saw this play opening night when expectations and nerves were running amok.)

With his handsome face and twinkling eyes, Tartaglia had me from the minute he began the set-up by talking to the audience as though letting them in on the backstory regarding Buyer and Cellar; by the time he leaped on the stage and assumed the role of Alex Moore, I was hooked.

It seems that the cellar in Streisand's Malibu barn is not ordinary basement filled higgledy-piggledy with junk. Her collections are arranged in shops set up along a street, all of modeled on exhibits at Winterthur, the museum housing the most important collections of Americana in the United States, located outside Wilmington, Delaware. In the play, Streisand herself is the "buyer" (right) who appears in a very funny sketch wherein she bargains to purchase a French automated doll named Fifi that blows bubbles. Yes, I know, she's buying her own stuff, but what she's really seeking communication with another individual. In fact, one of their encounters Babs confides in Alex that she had to use a hot water bottle as a doll (she claims her family was too poor to afford a doll for her) and her never having been called pretty, either as a child or an adult. The episode is bizarre yet touching at the same time.

The other character Tartaglia portrays is Alex's Jewish boyfriend, a cynic who manages to throw cold water on the stories Alex relays to him regarding Barbra. He dismisses the doll and "pretty" anecdotes as patently ridiculous; after all, he notes, she's gotten so rich and famous that she can forget about those childhood slights by buying whatever she wants. After all, she does have a shopping mall in her basement, right? The result of his negativity is the loss of Alex as boyfriend and our taking Barbra's dramatic claims with a grain of salt.

The most interesting plot line involves Alex's suggestion that Streisand portray Mama Rose in a production of Gypsy Arthur Laurents is thinking of bringing back to Broadway. To prepare to win over the aging producer, Alex (as drama coach and confidant, left) gets Babs to tap into her past convey the steel backbone of a stage mother. It appears that she doesn't have to go far: Her own mother could have put Mama Rose to shame with her putdowns and resolve. The interesting thing here is that this really happened; before Laurents died in 2011, he was considering casting Barbra as Mama Rose! According to David Saint, Laurents' friend and literary executor, plans are proceeding apace for such a production!

Jonathan Tolins has evidently done his homework regarding the facts about Barbra Streisand (so far as they are known) while creating a fictional "world" that not only informs us but makes us laugh too. And John Tartaglia's tour de force performance makes for a rapid and very fulfilling 100 minutes. Best of all, he never turns his portrayal of Streisand into a campy caricature. Instead, he uses stance, gesture, a slightly breathy New York accent and cadence to recreate her. As they ruminate on celebrity and its effects, both playwright and actor give the star a dignity and humanity fully evident amidst the comic bits.

Creating the world of the play, original Scenic Designer Andrew Boyce, Lighting Designer Christopher J. Bailey and Projection Designer Alex Koch transform an almost bare stage into a variety of venues.

Buyer and Cellar is a comic romp and a sly assessment of fame as it relates to those who have it and those who respond to it. It is a perfect antidote to these gray winter days, and you won't want to miss it.

Buyer and Cellar will be performed at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston St., New Brunswick through March 29. For information and tickets, call 732.243.7717 or visit www.GSPonline.org.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

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