Theatre Review: CATCO’s Buyer & Cellar is a Gleeful, Funny Triumph
CATCO finishes their 2014-2015 season with one of the most purely joyous and delightful shows I’ve seen so far this year, Jonathan Tollins’ Buyer & Cellar. The original run of this one-man show was a sizable Off-Broadway hit when it was staged by one of my favorite NYC theatre companies, Rattlestick, but my trips in 2013 didn’t coincide with its run, so I was very happy to finally redress that with this note-perfect production directed by Steven Anderson.
Buyer & Cellar is an elaborate, ornate fiction – made abundantly clear in star Andrew Levitt’s introduction before the play gets underway – that takes off from Barbra Streisand’s hilarious tribute to her own taste and largesse, My Passion for Design, a coffee table book released in 2010. It’s set in Streisand’s mall underneath her house, built to look like a whimsical main street of days gone by, peopled with storefronts – as the introductory remarks make clear, “this is the part that’s true.” Levitt stars as Alex More, an actor in Los Angeles who finds himself taking the job as the clerk in this mall after an incident as an “actor” at Disneyland left him temporarily jobless. While we see the story through Alex’s eyes, Levitt also appears as his catty boyfriend Barry; his supervisor on the Streisand estate, Sharon; Streisand’s husband, James Brolin; and Streisand herself.
As Buyer & Cellar follows Eric through his time in the underground mall, it looks at false-intimacy between superiors and subordinates, the distorting, vertiginous views from a perch of fame and wealth, the difficulty of doing right by other people in the world, and the loneliness of reaching heights few people do and to which almost no one can relate. But this is no “Ozymandias.” This play has its eye on a fast-moving, funny exploration of these topics and presenting a showcase for Levitt’s tour de force performance.
It’s easy to take certain people – public figures, personalities, institutions – for granted, especially in a decently-sized but not huge city like Columbus. As charmed and delighted as I’ve been by Andrew Levitt’s carefully crafted persona as Nina West, he was a chimeric revelation here. With an almost bare set, a table and a couple chairs – credit to Michael S. Brewer’s scenic design for little touches like the brightly tiled floor that evokes a ’70s golden age and chairs with mirrors on their backs – and performed in the round, for close to 100 minutes with no intermission, there’s nowhere for Levitt to hide and no easy, obscuring tricks at his disposal. In a few strokes, his Alex is immediately likable and charming, given depth with small gestures – little winks and asides to the audience put the persona over but don’t detract from the momentum.
Even more impressive is the supporting “cast,” both in Levitt’s quick shifts between them (without the aid of costume changes) and in how simultaneously funny and affectionate the portrayals are. Many of the best lines come from the boyfriend Barry – the play turns on his hilarious dissection of The Mirror Has Two Faces as a Mary Sue story with a persecution complex, a fantasy of everyone apologizing and you finally rejecting them, and his withering assessment of Streisand’s plan to play Mama Rose in a new film version of Gypsy. Levitt’s James Brolin is spot on, both as an excuse for some solid Capricorn One jokes (a phrase I can’t say I ever thought I’d write) and as the only glimpse of Streisand’s life outside of the hermetic world of the basement.
Of course, Buyer and Cellar lives and dies on its Barbra, and Andrew Levitt digs into her with gusto. Every gesture and inflection the audience expects makes an appearance, and it’s the kind of performance where one word immediately identifies the speaker. At the same time, and true to the words of the introduction, this is no impression. It’s an affectionate engagement with the subject, it humanizes and rounds out the picture, it gets laughs without going for something cheap or needlessly cruel.
That goes for the whole play – the mocking is never savage, but also doesn’t come across as defanged. It deflates the worship while getting what draws people to Streisand and what gives that myth its juice. No one is demonized here, everyone’s voice gets equal weight and real understanding. More than that, this is a rare example where the protagonist’s life is pretty good and he knows it; Alex More approaches the world from a place of joy and the confidence that he’ll rebound, and the drama isn’t lessened by this – it’s a breath of fresh air.
Buyer & Cellar is fluff, but it’s perfectly calibrated fluff. It makes the world look a little brighter and a little more full of possibility. It encourages empathy the way live theatre does so very well. And it features one of the finest performances – in a year of great performances – I’ve seen.
Buyer & Cellar runs through June 14th in the Studio Two Theater at the Riffe Center. For tickets and more info visit CATCO.org.