Left – Ben Gerrard. Cover – Ben Gerrard. Photos – Prudence Upton
This is not a true story. We are told so very explicitly in the prologue, as the actor in this one-man play, Ben Gerrard, breaks the fourth wall right from the outset, one which will not ever really be bricked back up, even once he gets fully into character for the fabulous solo performance which is to follow.
No, this is not a true story, but it is inspired by a real thing. Many of the exceedingly rich and famous in the entertainment industry are notorious for creating elaborate estate homes with luxurious and idiosyncratic architectural quirks, perhaps most famously Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Another legend of music, stage and screen, Barbra Streisand, even published a book My Passion for Design purely to showcase her lavishly made-to-order residence. One particular feature of her Malibu estate, which captured the imagination of playwright Jonathan Tolins, was the strange revelation that Streisand has set up her extensive basement area as a faux shopping mall, complete with an avenue of replica storefronts.
Presumably considering herself too famous to browse in real shops anymore without being mobbed, and having such an extensive collection of antiques, curios and costumes from the many highlights of her decades-long career as an entertainer, Streisand has had this underground complex created to not only house, but also allowing her to “shop” amongst her own possessions.
Taking that rather bizarre fact as his springboard, Tolins extrapolated from this scenario by positing the seemingly logical notion that Streisand might in fact employ somebody, most likely one of Los Angeles’ thousands of underemployed young actors, to serve as the fake shopkeeper of her fake shopping mall. Enter our protagonist and storyteller, Alex More as played by Gerrard, a deliciously arch, very camp young man who responds to this employment offer after recently being fired from a degrading job at Disneyland. Alex arrives to the palatial estate without knowing for whom he would be working, only to discover to his bemused delight that it is Barbra Streisand, one of the towering icons of his “gay cultural heritage”, as he puts it.
At first the exciting prospect turns out to be very dull, as his famous client does not appear immediately or on any kind of regular or predictable basis. So initially a lot of time is spent cleaning and organising this strange bunker of exquisite keepsakes. When the singing superstar does eventually appear, Alex finds himself calling on all his acting and improv experience as he realises that there is more than a little role-play required for this job. Streisand, as it turns out, really wants to buy into the fantasy of a “normal”, non-celebrity shopping experience, right down haggling and pretending to pay for things she already owns. Alex will have to be quick-witted enough to maintain the illusion.
What follows is a hilarious series of encounters as Alex becomes increasingly caught up in this game and eventually the illusion of friendship with his impossibly rich employer, once she drops the pretense of anonymity. Being a solo play, Gerrard performs in-character, as though Alex is relating and acting out his story for the audience which is literally in front of him, and thus embodies the other characters in his story. As he warns us in the prologue, he does not do an outright impression of Barbra Streisand, although he does distinguish the character with a noticeably different tone and physicality, as well as a hint of her identifiable accent, while not overtly mimicking her particular voice.
The other major character in the story is his boyfriend Barry, a bitter Hollywood screenwriter with a far more cynical opinion of Alex’s strange new fantastyland job, and especially of Streisand herself. According to Barry, Streisand is a self-indulgent megalomaniac who is horrendously out of touch and far too used to getting her own way, a woman who retells her personal history unreliably, to further the image that reinforces her ego. Thus begins an ongoing ritual of Alex retelling his strange workday experiences to Barry (and by extension us) as Streisand begins to drop her customer façade and relate private stories in this seemingly burgeoning friendship, followed by Barry’s increasingly indignant rebuttals of “Barbra’s” versions of her well-documented history in the public eye.
Tinged with an increasingly personal jealousy that Alex is becoming more invested in his potentially delusional employer than his own boyfriend, Barry rails against Streisand’s disrespect for her Brooklyn origins, seeks to debunk claims of ongoing beauty insecurities by citing her lifetime of high-profile celebrity lovers, and in particular seeks to illustrate (even by forcing Alex to re-watch some of her films) that there is a self-aggrandising streak throughout much of her work.
Eventually this escalates into a bona fide relationship problem for Alex, as Barry starts to harp on the darker undercurrents of this illusory friendship in which Streisand treats her employee like a confidant and even a potential artistic collaborator, but only ever on her own terms, as an employer who holds all the power and potentially could fire him at moment’s notice, even if he were to annoy her in the slightest. Although Alex considers this, he feels that merely being in the presence of an extraordinarily talented individual of such achievements is well worth the strange loops he has to jump through, regardless of the artificiality of their interactions.
Tolins' narrative does voice some interesting food for thought in this (as he stresses, entirely fictional) portrayal of the surreal nature of unequal relationships between eccentric celebrities and their staff, of which we have heard many examples in the real world turning sour far more spectacularly than anything in this play. Yet the show as a whole does not focus for long on any of the more unsettling notions it raises. And wisely so, for this is ultimately a very light and exceedingly humorous comedy, an exercise in high camp veering towards farce. Moreover, it is a showcase of the talents of Ben Gerrard, who is an absolute delight as the flamboyant Alex, who effortlessly slips into the other roles with aplomb.
For anyone too young (god forbid!) to have adequate cultural awareness of Barbra Streisand, a lot of this may go over their heads. Yet the play still has an inherently entertaining premise brought marvelously to life by this accomplished performer. This is such an uproariously funny production that your only problem might be laughing too loudly.
Ensemble Theatre presents
Buyer and Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Director Susanna Dowling
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 6 October – 12 November 2017
Tickets: $42 – $71
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 | www.ensemble.com.au