In Barbra Streisand’s book, My Passion for Design, she describes the private shopping mall she created in her basement to display the dolls, costumes and other treasured possessions that she had no place for in the rest of her home. In Buyer and Cellar, playwright Jonathan Tolins imagines what it would be like to staff that mall and serve its one famously demanding customer.
On the Phoenix Theatre’s underground stage, Scot Greenwell plays the actor, Alex, hired to play an employee in the basement mall. Greenwell also plays several other characters, including Barbra herself. He says in the beginning that he doesn’t “do Barbra” in the show, and while it is true there is no Barbra drag, Greenwell does respectfully portray her with voice and gestures when she comes up in Alex’s story. You feel as if you’re spending time with the real her — in an unreal situation.
Greenwell also portrays Alex’s screenwriter boyfriend, Barry. Barry knows all kinds of trivia and insights about Barbra’s movies but he gets annoyed, even jealous, when Alex starts to think she might care about him as a friend rather than just an employee.
The line between real and imaginary, whether deliciously or unfairly blurred, comes up again and again as a theme. Oprah (she makes an appearance, too!) calls Barbra’s coffee table book “aspirational,” but the playwright gently makes us think about what is truly worth aspiring to. The writing is smart and funny. Greenwell, under Charles Goad’s direction, brings it to life brilliantly. Several days later I’m still humming “Memories” and grinning fondly.
I thought about taking off a star from the playwright for making a solo performer go full out for almost two hours with no break. However, for the audience, the time flies by, so I’m just going to trust that Greenwell knows to take extra deliberate care of his voice and energy.
All of the design elements are just right, too. You might worry, as I did, that something is going to appear inside the empty display columns on the set and you won’t be able to see everything. But don’t worry: the columns stay empty and open to the imagination so it doesn’t matter if you can't see inside both of them. All you have to be able to see is the central screen, which is visible enough from any seat in the house.