BUYER AND CELLAR
BUYER AND CELLAR, Ensemble Theatre, 11 October-12November 2017. Photography by Prudence Upton - above and below: Ben Gerrard
In the opening moments of Buyer and Cellar, Jonathan Tolins’ 2013 one-man, 90-minute, many laughs play, the audience is told firmly that it is “totally fictional because it’s about someone who is very litigious”. As Alex (Ben Gerrard) declares this with such arch seriousness and glares at those already tittering, it is plain that a large pinch of kosher salt should be taken with this information.
Alex is an out-of-work actor, fired from a dubious gig as the Mayor of Toontown at Disneyland and desperate for work. What follows is an adventure of such absurdity and melancholic charm, it must be at least loosely based on a true story – or some kind of truth, at any rate.
Alex has some retail experience (does any struggling actor not?) and is mysteriously sounded out for such a job, at an undisclosed location in Malibu. It turns out to be “Barbra’s” massive compound, complete with New England barn and water mill. After signing an extensive confidentiality agreement he is issued with a quaint uniform – as apparently befitting the chatelain of Barbra Streisand’s subterranean home shopping mall. Yes, really, this much is true and can be verified in her lavish 2010 book, My Passion For Design. (Still available in economy softcover at $72.75, postage free, from booktopia.com.au.)
Tolins came upon this opulent tome (principal photographer: the author herself and originally sold at $US500 in a special slip case) and from it arose the idea and reverently hilarious tone for the play. Gay Alex is not a total worshipper, which puts him at odds with millions of queens worldwide, nevertheless, it’s LA where nothing is more celebrated than celebrity. And there are few celebs bigger or more venerated than Streisand. Inevitably, Alex is overwhelmed as he parks his ratty old Jetta discreetly behind a tree and reports for work.
His overwhelm is slammed into high gear after a few days’ solitary dusting, rearranging and listening to the frozen yogurt maker and popcorn machine, when a shopper – The shopper – appears. As a brilliant Ben Gerrard leads us through this surreal encounter, the tension and excitement are palpable. After all, this is a woman whose fantasy (aside from the sprawling mansion upstairs) is a private antiques store, a doll shop and a dress shop – filled with instantly recognisable creations such as the one she wore when... and the other one she wore when... and so on.
Instructed to call her Sadie and intuiting that he is to treat her as an ordinary customer, Alex and the unseen yet – through Gerrard’s performance – highly present superstar slither steadily down the tunnel to a Wonderland where, although she is queen, nevertheless lonely, suspicious neediness reigns.
Tolins’ mischievous and often riotously funny play is successful because although it’s couched as flummery, on the peachy pink set with mood lighting (designer Charles Davis, lighting Alex Berlage) it turns out to be surprisingly more than that. Each evening Alex returns home and relates his days to screenwriter boyfriend Barry. (Also Gerrard, with a minimal turn of the head, squaring of shoulders and deepening the voice.) When Barry calls out Alex’s bonding with Sadie for what it is: fake celebrity intimacy, it reveals another layer of reality – and surreality – and suddenly it becomes genuinely touching.
It would be easy to mock the diva’s excesses and while Tolins’ play is gloriously satirical and Gerrard’s performance of it is pitch perfect, joyous and subtle, there is also affection and even a tender understanding of their subject. After all, who could remain untouched after inhabiting that rarified, merciless cocoon called megastardom for fifty years? And while Streisand is clearly a bit touched (as in nuts) she’s also fiercely intelligent and still – after all these years – vulnerable. Tolins has read the book and he knows. You can laugh, but the next moment there is an insight or a moment of poignancy and the laugh stutters and stops. For instance...
“I have intense relationships with furniture,” writes Streisand. Cue hysterical laughter. But then she goes on, “probably because we practically had none when I was growing up.” And a little later, “I played under the dining table, I liked it under there. It felt safe.” Not so funny, now, is it?
Even when high flown and preposterous, she can also drop a thundering insight. How about this: “I don’t like feeling a sense of loss. Even something I’ve lost at an auction can haunt me.” You can see that tremulous smile, those wistful eyes, the sorrowful nose, like a Jewish Bambi from old Brooklyn even as you chortle. Then comes the awareness: “Sometimes I think it’s all connected to the loss of a parent, because you’d do anything to get that mother or father back. But you can’t. Yet with objects, there’s a possibility.”
So Barbra has her mansion, her mall, her dolls and doll houses (she likes decorating and has run out of rooms upstairs, so remodelling doll houses is perfect, not least, she says, because you don’t have to deal with contractors – who wouldn’t agree with that?) and that’s where we and Alex leave her.
The conclusion to their non-friendship is preordained and can come as no surprise, but the pleasure and effect of Buyer and Cellar is startling. Director Susannah Dowling and sound designer Marty Jamieson give their actor the physical and aural springboard to take this feat of acting and characterisation and fly with it. Ben Gerrard is a gifted performer and in this delightfully dotty, fascinating piece he is magic. Totally recommended.