Smile Politely

At the intersection of fantasy and reality

We have a special place in our hearts for celebrities. From athletes to actors, musicians to models, we look up to people who are rich, popular, and powerful because to many, having lots of money, friends and the ability to influence others is the definition of success. The majority of our interactions with the celebrity “caste” involve consumption: hour after mindless hour frittered away in front of the television, perusing and “liking” pictures on official (and carefully curated) social media accounts, and greedibly gobbling up intimate details about their personal lives, especially the tragic moments. Buyer & Cellar, written by Jonathan Tolins and directed at the Station Theatre by Thom Schnarre, attempts to flesh out the complex and often co-dependent relationship between a mega-star and her fans through a strange, funny and fictional examination of a diva and the person hired to take care of a literal shopping mall’s worth of her stuff.

The entirety of Buyer & Cellar is delivered by a single character, Alex More, a struggling actor looking for Hollywood fame but currently unemployed after an ill-advised and obscene (but probably cathartic) outburst directed towards a child that cost him job as “Mayor of Toontown” at Disneyland. More, brought to life with admirable energy and enthusiasm by Coy Wenthworth, pieces together a few acting gigs before landing a mysterious job requiring retail experience at a massive estate in Malibu. Upon arrival, he is told “[t]he lady of the house needs someone to work in the mall in her basement,” and the absurdity begins!

It’s not long before Alex More is introduced to his employer, none other than the legendary Barbra Streisand! His job? To care for and man the different stores that comprise the shopping mall in the basement of her estate. Their meet-cute is one of the play’s more whimsical and charming episodes. Streisand, who introduces herself as “Sadie,” enters her basement mall and starts browsing through her collection of dolls before settling on one and asking More, still not quite sure exactly what his job entails, “How much?”.  When he quotes an exorbitant sum and scandalizes his “customer,” he then uses his acting chops to improvise a detailed backstory for the toy, one evoking war and suffering and a tragic family history, in order to justify the steep price. This playful storytelling delights his patron and a bond is formed. This connection is tested and explored throughout the rest of the production.

Buyer & Cellar is a play about a lot of different themes, maybe too many. In around 100 minutes it deals with the privilege afforded to celebrities, as well as the heavy emotional and psychological toll that comes with constantly being adored and judged. It also examines the power dynamics that govern interactions between those with much and those with little. To that end, in one of the play’s more inspired twists, More is given the chance to assume the “celebrity” role for a bit and finds that the crown lies heavy indeed. In addition, the play touches on how human impulses like perfectionism and narcissism create and drive celebrity, the inability of material possessions to fill a void left by emotional privation, and the healing power of humor and using your imagination. 

Mr. Wentworth must be commended for his performance. While he is the sole actor in the production, in addition to his primary role as Alex More, he brings an impressive array of different characters to vibrant life through his chameleon-like ability to employ different accents, cadences and gestures. Through him, we meet Sharon, Ms. Streisand’s world-weary and gruff house manager; Barry, More’s boyfriend, an acerbic, struggling screenwriter from Brooklyn; and even “Babs” herself. As More, he is playful and naive, often sarcastic but rarely cynical and has the timing, delivery and sense of space to be funny in a wide variety of ways, from obscene proclamations to tongue-in-cheek puns and full-on physically comedy.

His performance is facilitated and enhanced by the many capable members of the production team. The almost unbelievable idea of a private basement shopping mall and shrine to materialism is made plausible by Chris Guyotte’s set in all its pastel glory. This space, filled with stained glass lamps that spill rainbow light around the room, is populated by a large doll collection and features a gift shop for anyone privileged enough to visit. In My Passion for Design, Streisand’s photo homage to “…the taste and style that have inspired her beautiful homes and collections,” she provides the photographic proof of her carefully curated basement mall. However, it seems more fun to imagine it the way it was realized in this performance: full of tchotchkes and knick knacks and well cared for but slowly fading reminders of her many impressive accomplishments, a fabulous consignment shop full of self-serving iconography.

In addition to the set, Brian Hagy’s light and sound design flesh out the performance. Light is used to both isolate More as he ruminates and illuminate his insights, sound effects aid Mr. Wentworth as he populates the set and moves the story along, and snippets of Streisand’s gorgeous singing voice infuse pauses in the action with dream-like ambiance.

From the beginning, it is is made explicitly clear that Buyer & Cellar is fantasy. It may be about a real person and centered around a real place but within the first few minutes, More declares to the audience that  “[n]one of this is real.” However, the story is a real exploration of and tribute to the power and appeal of fantasy and its ability to distract us and heal us and help us find meaning and how even those of us with the means to build a personal shopping mall can still derive real enjoyment from a little make-believe. And how maybe it’s those people in particular, the creators and purveyors of fantasy, who need it the most.

Buyer & Cellar, directed by Thom Schnarre, will be playing at the Station Theater in Urbana until June 23rd. Click here for more details.

Photos by Melinda Edwards

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