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“Buyer & Cellar” isn’t a holiday show, per se. But concerned, as it is, with ideas about the things money can and cannot buy — and the value of items in each category — it doesn’t feel out of season.
Oh, it’s also a show about Barbra Streisand. (Sort of. It’s really about the idea of Barbra Streisand, as an embodiment of celebrity and show-biz noblesse oblige.) But I can attest that you need not be a Babs-ologist to understand and enjoy “Buyer & Cellar.” And with the wide range of the pop culture references that whiz by from the mouth of its amiably talkative narrator, a mastery of Streisand trivia wouldn’t necessarily cover you, anyway.
Actor Phil Tayler is the onstage conduit for this one-hander, written by Jonathan Tolins and directed here by Courtney O’Connor. (This Boston premiere of the piece, which bowed Off Broadway in 2013, runs at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Jan. 3.) It’s based on a central kernel of fact. As discussed in her 2010 coffee table book “My Passion for Design,” Streisand is a ravenous collector of things, and arranges them in the basement of a barn on her Malibu estate, in the form of a sort of phantom mall.
As imagined by Tolins, at least, this extended trophy room of consumerism is not unlike the faux-outdoor shopping plazas found in Las Vegas casino complexes. It encompasses “stores” including a frozen yogurt place and a doll shop. And it’s watched over by a sole employee — one Alex More, a struggling Los Angeles actor whose recent roles include the lead in a terrible-sounding coming-out play called “Accepting Steven,” and the Mayor of Toontown at Disneyland.
Actor and director navigate this material deftly, pulling that old trick of making it look easy. “Buyer & Cellar” is episodic, with a loose structure that only gently points toward an epiphanic conclusion. With help from Christopher Brusberg’s subtle lighting design and David Remedios’s sound, we’re nudged along from scene to scene in a way that helps it all feel cohesive.
Credit the fully formed performance of Tayler, who is instantly likable as a man who is openly dazzled by high-rent glam but refuses to discount himself. More “was never that big a Streisand queen,” he avers early on, though he did “appreciate this stuff as part of my gay birthright.” Tayler chows through chunks of text with conversational ease, presenting anecdotes (in which he voices More, as well as his new employer and his boyfriend Barry) with dinner-party drama. He fires off the playwright’s piles of quicksilver one-liners with nimble verbosity.
Viewing a Streisand film with the help of Barry’s skeptical “Criterion Collection of snark,” More sees, in a series of Streisand scene partners who all seem compelled to give obeisance to the great star, the “terrified sincerity of a hostage video.” Receiving a climactic tour of Streisand’s home, stunned again and again by the force of her unrelentingly good taste, he feels “like a fly being swatted by old copies of Architectural Digest.”
The laughs come regularly. They’re mild at first, but there’s cause for a guffaw or two as More’s adventure progresses. I was hooked once Tayler sold an outrageous sequence in which Streisand doggedly haggles for a lower “price” on a doll she already owns, in a perverse role-play that tests the mettle of her new hire.
Streisand (or “Streisand”) eventually offers carefully hewn details of her upbringing in Brooklyn, complaining of lingering emotional wounds. “It’s a terrible thing to be a little girl who’s never told she’s pretty. You never get over it,” she says, and we’re not quite sure if she’s forming a bond with More or merely manipulating her appearance, as it were, as carefully as he does her heavily lacquered fingernails.
More tallies his social progress by commercial markers. His unwashed Volkswagen Jetta — not exactly a hunk of junk — must be hidden behind the bushes when he parks at work. When we meet him, his housewares are sourced from Target and Home Depot. With some extra cash finally in his pocket, he dashes to the upscale shopping center The Grove and proudly shops at Crate & Barrel. Yes, his name is symbolic—not only in terms of his appreciation for accumulated stuff, but a claimed relation to the poet Thomas More, he of “Utopia.” Streisand’s mall is her own personal utopia, he supposes, and he wonders how he can make — or buy — his own.
But he’s not craven. He’s impressed by everything Streisand has, but ultimately understands that what he really needs isn’t a frozen yogurt shop in his basement but some better friends, here in an adopted city where sincerity comes in short supply. At first he’s more than satisfied to be Streisand’s valued employee. As he starts to see her as a friend — and artistic peer, in the only sequence of this fanciful play, remarkably, that scans as distractingly implausible — he’s willing to risk that status in a gambit for something more personal. Has he become just another item in Streisand’s collection?
In 90 minutes, “Buyer & Cellar” breezes by like an amusing anecdote. But in its views of the power (or emptiness) of celebrity, and the many possible paths toward loneliness, it offers more.
Jeremy D. Goodwin contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, The ARTery (where he is also an editor), Berkshire Magazine and many other publications. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.