Left & cover – Ash Flanders. Photos – Jeff Busby
Playwright Jonathan Tolins’s comedic work of fiction, Buyer and Cellar, was inspired by real-life coffee table tome, My Passion for Design, by Barbra Streisand. The book was pitched as a rare and intimate private tour into her world, apparently reflecting Barbra’s love of American architecture and design between the 18th & 20th centuries and showcased the rooms she had decorated, the furniture and art she’d amassed and the resplendent gardens on her Malibu compound. But it didn’t stop there – Barbra went further – sharing memories of her childhood, the development of her sense of style and what collecting means to her.
Tolins admits he was never a Barbraphile but after his incidental introduction to the book, he discovered that it also featured her ‘dream refuge’ – a vintage styled European Street mall in her barn’s basement including a doll shop, an antique shop, an antique clothes shop, a gift shop and a sweet shop (complete with a frozen yoghurt dispenser and a popcorn machine).
He then recalls joking, “I’d like to meet the guy who works down there”. And from this throw away line, it gained momentum and fed into his fascination with pretend ‘utopian’ environments. Tolins originally wrote it as a humour piece for The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs column but when they passed on it, he decided to post it on his blog instead. From there, a friend (an agent) suggested that he write it as a one-man show. Recognising this would be a great setting for a play with rich comic potential, he meticulously researched the book and found infinite details and moments – albeit funny, poignant or crazy (or a combination of all three) and developed the script from there.
The play begins with a disclaimer – by Alex, our leading man, explaining what is true (i.e. the faux mall) and what isn’t (everything else in the ensuing 90 minutes).
We’re told this drifting, out of work, gay actor, ends up working for Barbra after being fired from his last job, as Mayor of Toontown in Disneyland, after threatening “to shove a churro up some obnoxious kid’s ass”. Feeling guilty about the dismissal, Vincent from HR (a former hook-up) hears of a position requiring acting and retail experience and recommends Alex.
Tolins has said, “he didn’t want impersonations of Barbra – the play is about the Barbra we never see – in private, living with the blessings and burdens of her fame. By having the actor evoke her simply, switching between characters without costume or caricature, the play keeps Barbra a thing of magic – there but not there, always just out of reach.” Gary Abrahams, in his directorial debut for the MTC, has been faithful with this production and displays the right sensibility.
Buyer and Cellar owes its success to the multi-talented, multi-character actor, Ash Flanders, who turns in a beautifully crafted performance – charming, impish, convincing and nuanced for all five characters that he inhabits.
The brilliance of the words include a litany of double entendres, metaphors and euphemisms and are combined with brilliant comic timing to ensure a seamless transition between characters and a richness to all the parts.
Through the course of this ‘odd’ relationship, Alex who seems at first to be lacking self-respect and decisiveness, becomes determined to get what he wants, with the closing scene involving the rug perfectly illustrating what this experience has given him. As for Streisand, it’s a sympathetic portrait of her – focusing on her desire to be fully understood (rather than all the misconceptions and opinions people have about her or what they feel they know) and avoids commenting overtly on the excessive consumerism and self-indulgence. The scenes in particular, where Barbra reveals her fantasy or why she stayed so long with Jon Peters, are very telling. And as they bond, she opens up her home and a little bit of her heart.
Buyer and Cellar, is inherently funny and irreverent and Adam Gardnir’s set and costume design is clever, complimenting the text but never distracting from it. It doesn’t need to be ostentatious – we, the audience, can just imagine it and accept the premise (even after the introductory disclaimer). As for avid fans, they want to believe it’s really happening, that they’ve been invited into her world and that’s part of the attraction.
In this intimate setting of the Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre, you’ll find moments of connection, honesty, warmth and joy. And some fabulous Brooklyn shtick.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Buyer and Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Director Gary Abrahams
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 30 October – 12 December, 2015
Tickets: from $73 | under 30s from $36
Bookings: 03 8688 0800 | mtc.com.au