by Jeannie Marlin Woods
The season opener at the Ghent Playhouse is a charmer. Sam Reilly turns in a totally endearing performance in this solo piece. BUYER & CELLAR may best be described as a “fantasia.” The actor tells us at the beginning it is fiction, not a real story. It is an imaginative “what if” story based on a reality almost as strange as fiction.
The real facts are that the famed celebrity Barbra Streisand published a book on architecture and home design in 2010. Entitled “My Passion for Design,” the book featured photographs (by Streisand herself) and commentary on homes and gardens she built and designed. An avid collector throughout her stellar five-decade career, Streisand transcended her humble beginnings in Brooklyn to create a fantasy home in Malibu based on a New England cottage. She not only filled it with art and tasteful furniture and décor, she created a little village on the lower (cellar) level of the “cottage” with a row of quaint little shops. These included a doll shop, a sweets shop, a gift shop, and a clothing shop (filled with her famous clothing from Broadway and film roles.)
With this idea Jonathan Tolins creates this fantasia of an out-of-work actor, Alex More, who gets fired from his job at Disneyland (“Mouse-witz”) and accepts a job working as the only employee in the quaint shops for a mystery owner. In short order he learns that owner is the one and only Barbra. Alex is a gay man but tells us he is not typically wowed by this celebrity and doesn’t “do Barbra” – in other words he does not impersonate her. He is supervised by a sour-faced aide named Sharon and, because of a disclosure clause, only shares his adventures with his significant other, Barry. Reilly easily transitions from one character to the other, including the inimitable Barbra.
Since this is a solo piece, it is up to Reilly to create the entire world, with its few characters, and elegant but unadorned set. The actor is more than up to the challenge and carries us along, describing each space in all its opulence and kitsch – “like someone’s grandmother designed an Apple store.” Director Cathy Lee-Visscher, who also designed the set, uses the intimate Ghent stage very well. The cream-colored walls, beautiful silk upholstered sofa, and eerie translucent panels don’t represent any of the detailed locations, but Alex’s descriptions make them come alive for us. The director has staged the piece well and kept the pace up, which is good because the script is about 20 minutes too long. The visual elements are greatly enhanced by the inspired sound design by Monk Schane-Lydon.
This evening of theatre is very, very funny. Alex has some tremendous one-liners and great rapport with the audience. When his famous employer comes to visit the shops, Alex develops a relationship that veers as close to friendship as one might get with a mega-star. He offers insight into the isolation and loneliness of life at the top. He comes to realize that Streisand’s creation of the cottage, gardens and little shops is driven by her desire to build a perfect world – it is aspirational. In addition to the quips and well-drawn character vignettes, there are also touching moments in Reilly’s deft performance.
BUYER & CELLAR is sure to please. It takes us on a fascinating ride by a gifted storyteller. We hope it attracts a wide audience.
Playwright: Jonathan Tolins
Director: Cathy Lee-Visscher
Set Design: Cathy Lee-Visscher
Lighting Design: Allen Phelps
Sound Design: Monk Schane-Lydon
Cast: Sam Reilly as Alex More
BUYER & CELLAR runs October 7-9, October 14-16, October 21-23. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m.
Running time: 1:50 minutes with no intermission.
Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY. Closes October 23rd. Website: GhentPlayhouse.org. See website for Covid protocols.