As any writer (or theatergoer) knows, some ideas that sound clever in discussion don’t make the leap well from page to stage. Fortunately, Jonathan Tollins’ Buyer & Cellar, now onstage at Florida Studio Theatre’s Bowne’s Lab Theatre, is not one of those disappointments.
As with other of FST’s Stage III productions, Buyer & Cellar is small-scale—in this case, featuring just one actor (Remy Germinario, directed by Catherine Randazzo) on the stage with a chair, table, chaise and background screen to project his location. And what a location it is! Tollins took off from the very real starting point of the shopping mall in superstar Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement (see her 2010 book, My Passion for Design, which is cheekily referenced throughout) to set his fictional character, gay actor Alex More, there as the one employee who works to keep the mall clean, stocked and ready for its only customer—la Streisand herself.
It certainly sounds ripe for parody, and Tollins and Germinario do score some fairly predictable laughs at the concept of a one-woman mall housing all the dolls, trinkets and antiques Streisand has acquired over her years of collecting. But Buyer & Cellar would quickly wear out its welcome (it’s about 100 minutes, no intermission, so applause for the actor’s stamina) if poking fun at the star were its only goal.
No, instead, we get to see Streisand (as portrayed by Germinario) through Alex’s somewhat wary eyes, as she bargains with him over the purchase price of a doll (one she obviously already owns), reveals her long-held desire to star in Gypsy, and even shares some secrets from her unhappy Brooklyn childhood. Sure, there are nods to her famous perfectionism, her famous nails, and her famous nose—and Alex’s would-be screenwriter boyfriend, Barry (also played by Germinario), gets in more than a few digs as he sees Alex falling under her spell.
But there are also more personal moments, as when Barbra sends hubby James Brolin (yep, Germinario again) downstairs to fetch her some frozen yogurt, or worries about her son Jason, or recalls the hot water bottle she dressed up as a doll when she was a child. Ultimately Alex, for whom the whole thing started as just a desperately needed job after he was fired from Disneyland, comes to see more than one side to his employer, even as we sense from the premise that things are going to have to end rather badly.
Germinario, casually dressed and wearing nerdy glasses, comes across from the beginning as an engaging personality, one who delves into gossipy conversation with his audience as he would with a friend. He doesn’t try to “do” Barbra in his scenes with her; just a toss of the head or pushing back imaginary hair with his fingers can summon up her mannerisms and presence. He can shift quickly and convincingly from being the bitchy Barry to being Streisand’s aloof house manager, Sharon, to being himself, as he comes to the realization that he doesn’t just want to be someone less talented making fun of someone more talented. It’s a winning performance.
Buyer & Cellar continues through April 14; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.