American writer Jonathan Tolins’ hit 2013 one-man play Buyer and Cellar stands as proof that truth is far stranger than fiction.
The narrative of the play itself is a total fiction, but the central piece of information that inspired it is entirely true: Barbra Streisand has a mall in her basement.
This tidbit was revealed in her 2010 book, My Passion for Design, which offers a fans a look inside the EGOT-winning superstar’s lavish Malibu home. The book reveals how her famous uncompromising perfectionism is not just a professional obsession, but a personal one too.
It’s a sprawling property, but Barbra has a lot of stuff she’s accrued over her five decades in the spotlight, and needed somewhere to put it all. But a regular basement wasn’t enough for la Streisand; instead, she designed a vintage shopping mall for her basement, to display her collection of dolls, antiques and costumes. Throw in a frozen yogurt stall and a popcorn stall, and you’ve got a fully-functioning mini-mall where she can shop without worrying about overzealous fans.
Tolins’ play imagines that Barbra hired a struggling actor called Alex (Ben Gerrard) to work as a shopkeeper in the mall and assist the customer (singular). In this extraordinarily unusual and surreal situation, the two form a strange connection, and Alex ends up inspiring Barbra in unexpected ways.
Tolins has written one of the funniest plays to emerge from the US this decade, not passing up any opportunity to poke fun at Hollywood’s hypocrisies, excesses and self obsession. The idea of Streisand’s basement mall is full of comedic riches, but Tolins is also hugely imaginative, and has written a piece that attempts to understand what it must be like to live as a superstar.
He manages to both satirise Barbra and have a great affection and compassion for her and the alienation that stardom has enforced upon her (but it’s difficult to know if she’d see that compassion if she ever actually saw the play herself).
The Ensemble production features Ben Gerrard as Alex, and he’s a wonderful guide to this strange and unusual world: a compelling storyteller who reaches out to the audience in a generous way.
He has great comedic timing for this text, although his performance on opening night took a good half hour to find its groove; at first, he seemed a little overly mannered and a bit untrusting of the text.
But the nature of performing a one-man comedy is that you really have no sense of how it will work with an audience before it’s in front of one, and opening night marked only Gerrard’s third time performing the material for an audience. I suspect it will settle much more over the course of the season.
Director Susanna Dowling keeps the action unfolding at a tight pace, with Alex Berlage’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s sound help to define the shifts in time and location. Charles Davis has created a simple set that conjures up images of the overstated elegance that typifies Streisand’s personal style.