‘Buyer & Cellar’ Frolics through the Underbelly of Fame and Power

Okay, let’s not let philosophizing spoil a good time. I could tell you that Buyer & Cellar—the play now at Pittsburgh Public Theater—is a provocative inquiry into the nature of power, relationships, and the transactional aspects of our interpersonal lives.

But it’s also a hoot. The best way to imbibe this concoction is just to laugh with it and not try to sniff out the deep implications. They will bubble up, of their own accord, while you’re sipping the frothy brew.

Can you hear me now? Tom Lenk sparkles as Alex ... and as Barbra and others.

Can you hear me now? Tom Lenk sparkles as Alex … and as Barbra and others.

Buyer & Cellar is a fictional riff on a strange fact about a real person, singer and actress Barbra Streisand. Though no longer the megastar she once was, Streisand (who recently turned 73) remains the diva’s diva. She has put much care into designing and furnishing her palatial home in Malibu—which includes a special feature to house the memorabilia she has acquired over the years.

Below stairs is a replica of an underground shopping mall. There’s a doll store displaying Streisand’s collection of rare dolls, a dress shop with the outfits she wore in Broadway and Hollywood hits, a “gift shoppe” with assorted tchotchkes, and more. Nobody visits this ghostly mall except the owner and invited guests. But Streisand described it in her 2010 book My Passion for Design, and when playwright Jonathan Tolins read the book, he saw the germ of a story.

What If?

The L.A. metro area is densely populated by aspiring actors. What if one of them were hired to be the floating shopkeeper in Streisand’s mall?

Tolins’ play takes off from there. It is a one-man show, and at The Public, the young actor Alex who gets the mall gig is played by Tom Lenk. Best known as the craven villain Andrew Wells in TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Lenk has a far tougher assignment in Buyer & Cellar.

Standing before a packed house on a nearly bare stage—building sets to re-create the shops plus other locations would’ve only cluttered the action—Lenk is charged with conjuring up the whole fantasy. Sometimes he renders Alex as a storyteller who speaks his tale directly to the audience. At other times he’s an actor with multiple roles, rapidly shifting gears to give us (for instance) exchanges between Alex and Streisand herself.

Alex has a passion for Barbra's "Passion for Design."

Alex has a passion for Barbra’s “Passion for Design.”

Lenk does it all with flamboyant, standing-ovation-inducing gusto. More important, he does not commit the stage hog’s error of making his virtuosity the center of attention. His moves and mannerisms serve a purpose. He brings the characters to life; he makes a very weird story work.

Cheap Laughs or Fair Trade?

Speaking of mannerisms: Playwright Tolins, who is gay, has written the character Alex to be ostentatiously gay, and Lenk runs with it. More accurately he flounces extravagantly and effeminately with it, while putting the telltale lilt into his voice.  Although Lenk displays a good sense of balance in knowing when to crank up the histrionics and when to go deadpan, the script (which is eloquently worded, by the way) calls for Alex to be campy, chatty, and catty throughout. Describing his first glimpse of the splendid Malibu estate, Alex tells us “the leaves on the trees shimmered like sequins on Liza Minnelli.” In a discussion of where good taste comes from, he admits it just might be God-given “although if that were true, Israelis would dress better.”

At one point early in Buyer & Cellar, I started to squirm. While the audience roared at the one-liners and at the physical antics, I worried: Aww, gee. Is this play going to trade on gay stereotypes for easy laughs? But then the story kicked in. And it’s a story about a more compelling kind of trade—the trading of trust, admiration, and human affections.

Alex, in his mall-keeper’s job, feels lonely down amid the trappings of wealth until the lady of the house appears. Lenk does Streisand with minimalist mimicry: a seductive pose that segues into a commanding strut, an occasional toss of the hair, a trace of the Brooklyn accent that real-life Streisand has kept since her gritty childhood in a poorer neighborhood of that borough.

It turns out the lady wants to play. At the doll store she expresses interest in buying a particular doll (which of course she already owns), so Alex gamely plays along. He makes up a wacky story about the doll’s history and names a price. Streisand bids lower. They haggle. Alex stands firm. And Streisand likes the shtick so much that she re-visits often, becoming close friends with her new employee.

Raptor and Rabbit

Or so it may seem. This is an unequal relationship, which, like misaligned tectonic plates, means there will be some shakin’ down the road. Forebodings (and another memorable line) come when Streisand touches Alex for the first time, taking his hand to lead him to a shop nearby. Lenk-as-Alex recalls how starstruck he felt within the grasp of those fabled fingers, adding a small confession: “I surreptitiously brushed one of her lacquered nails with the pad of my thumb.”

Soft and hard, flesh and claw. Is Alex merely prey that the raptor will toy with? Or will the plucky bunny prove more than a match for the eagle-beaked valkyrie?

Our man soars into high dudgeon when the drama heats up.

Lenk soars into high dudgeon when the drama heats up.

As the plot thickens new questions arise. Further scenes occur in which Streisand touches Alex, manipulatively. Each time, the gesture puts a chill on Alex, and yet you wonder if Streisand is the one who’s really being left in the cold. A friend who watched the play with me remarked on this afterward. He said the Streisand portrayal reminded him of  King Midas, because “Everything and everyone she touches becomes a commodity.” Maybe it’s lonely being golden.

But that’s not the bottom line, either. Buyer & Cellar has no simple bottom line. There are characters and subplots I haven’t mentioned—such as one involving Alex’s live-in partner, who grows irate to find his mate in thrall to the diva—and as Lenk hops back and forth playing everybody, one’s head begins to spin. While the belly laughs.

Buyer & Cellar premiered two years ago in New York, where it was an off-Broadway success with Michael Urie as the actor. The Public has done well to line up Lenk and bring it here.

Closing Credits & Ticket Info           

 Jonathan Tolin’s Buyer & Cellar is directed for Pittsburgh Public Theater by Don Stephenson. Through June 28 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. For showtimes and tickets visit The Public or call 412-316-1600.

Photos courtesy of The Public.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.