Buyer & Celler
by Jonathan Tolins
directed by David Saint
starring John Tartaglia
George Street Playhouse
New Brunswick, NJ
March 3–29, 2015
Review by C. Todd White
March 8, 2015.
Buyer & Cellar is not, really, about Barbra Streisand, though it certainly claims to be.
The play is presented, necessarily, as “fiction,” though sources close enough to be “in the know” (i.e. artistic director David Saint) think of it as a “fact-filled flight of fancy.” It is up to the audience to decide what is fact and what is fiction.
Although the play is based on a very real place (the vast, boutiquey basement under Streisand’s sprawling Malibu compound) and a very real object (Streisand’s book, My Passion for Design), the idea of a caretaker/curator of Streisand’s mall is entirely imaginary.
Or is it?
Streisand herself is presented in two dimensions, despite the extensive research involved. She’s no more “real” than a paper doll, a lonely woman as secluded as Howard Hughes and spoiled as a Disney princess. Our protagonist, Alex More, is fully represented — and is brilliantly fleshed out by the show’s solitary actor, John Tartaglia. Alex himself lives (and works) in a Disneyesque fantasy land — the fantasy of an Angeleno actor who aspires to greatness but becomes trapped by his own dream, Mayor of the Main Street of illusion.
There are no real surprises in this play. We know at the outset that More will be fired, his hopes rising only to be crushed. We know that there is only one actor and that the show will last 90 grueling(?) minutes. But this is where Tolins pulls a fast one. It is not the destination here but the journey that is essential. Through witty dialogue, rapid (monologic) repartee, and the brilliant acting of Tartaglia, the play whizzes by like a car barreling down the Matterhorn, with dialogue as dizzying as those crazy whirling teacups. The play, in its simplicity, sounds great depths.
Though Tolins claims in a New York Times interview that he had “no clear agenda while writing, no message to impart,” the truth is that this play is a raging allegory. This is a story of power, and it is here that the show becomes very real. The truth is, people with power do get bored. They do get lonely. And they do, deliberately or not, sometimes turn those around them into playthings, teasing them into thinking they are special, that they are needed — only to cut the cord once a seemingly codependent bond is knotted. “You are special,” they coo to us. “You understand me,” they woo to us. “Everyone only wants my money,” they complain as they dangle a blank check over our needy heads. And then, finally: “You’re just like everyone else. Such a disappointment.”
Is young More the luckiest guy in Los Angeles? Or is he just another wanna-be gold digger? That is the real question of the play. That, and: What would you do in his place? Would you fall for it? Would you, like Alex, step out of your reality, abandon those who love you to pursue a phantom mirage? Chances are…
This amazing play runs though March 29th at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, and I heartily encourage all Out In Jersey readers to see it. Under David Saint’s direction, John Tartaglia brings not only Alex to life but also his campy Jewish boyfriend, the growly housekeeper, and even the great Diva herself.
And Barbra: If you’ve not yet seen this play, you should. Don’t worry. It’s not at all about you.
©2016 by The Tangent Group. All rights reserved.
This review was first published by Out In Jersey magazine.