Best known and loved by fellow Philadelphians as the creator and star of the outrageous show Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret (seen last month at the Fringe Festival), Pig Iron Theatre cofounder Dito van Reigersberg rises to even greater heights of comic brilliance in Buyer & Cellar, Jonathan Tolins' cheeky 2013 satire about a short-lived friendship between a gay mensch and Hollywood icon Barbra Streisand. The one-man show, which opened Wednesday at Plays and Players Theatre in Center City, kicks off 1812 Productions' 21st season and will run through Oct. 29.
One-man shows are notoriously tricky affairs: Choose the wrong actor and you're sunk. Tolins' show was an off-Broadway hit thanks in large part to Michael Urie, who originated the role. Happily, van Reigersberg is utterly compelling — so much so that it was a shock to learn he was cast only after the original lead, John Jarboe, had to drop out. We owe Mr. Jarboe a thanks.
Tolins, best known for the Broadway show The Twilight of the Golds and its small-screen adaptation, was reportedly inspired to write Buyer & Cellar when he had his first gander at Streisand's debut book, A Passion for Design, an obscenely narcissistic tour of her home, a gazillion-dollar Malibu compound Streisand meticulously refurbished, dressed, and decorated — including a Connecticut-style country mill and working waterwheel. Copiously illustrated by photos taken by the author herself, the book includes a section about a Winterthur-inspired mini-mall she had installed in the basement.
See, Winterthur uses faux shop windows to display some of its exhibits, so Streisand hit upon the idea of building a row of specialty shops where she could stow away her massive collection of movie costumes, jewelry, dolls, and assorted other tchotchkes.
We learn all this from the show's star and narrator, Alex More (van Reigersberg), an underemployed L.A. actor down in the dumps after being fired from his most stable acting job to date — playing a stuffed toy in Disneyland.
Structured like a fireside chat – or an adult bedtime story – Buyer & Cellar has Alex recount his experiences at his next job, as storekeeper and stock boy in the little mall underneath Streisand's compound.
As Alex tells us, for the first few days the job was a lark. He'd rush home each night to tell his boyfriend, Barry, about the basement and all the treasures it holds. A man given to the most extreme passions when it comes to anything related to Streisand, Barry pumps Alex for details about the fateful day when Streisand visits the mall and meets Alex for the first time.
Tolins' writing is pointed, sharp, and wonderfully shameless, while van Reigersberg's performance is spot-on. While he doesn't try to impersonate Streisand, he does beautifully capture her intonations and mannerisms.
Things get a little more complicated when Alex begins to forge an actual friendship with Streisand. But are stars of Streisand's level capable of connecting with mere mortals?
As satires go, Buyer & Cellar is quite light: It never strays too deeply into the dark side of human behavior. It scores a few nice points in its observations about our fanatical devotion to celebrities and the connection gay men have made to Streisand. But all in all, this is a joyous comedy that pays homage to Streisand even as it pokes fun at her.