Being stuck in a basement may not seem like the most opportune subjects for a one person play, but when the basement happens to belong to Barbra Streisand and the play is written by Jonathan Tolins, the author of the hilarious “Last Sunday in June” and the prescient “Twilight of the Golds,” you do strike theatrical gold.
The play is “Buyer and Cellar,” which is now playing at Hartford’s Theaterworks through February 14, where the gold is further polished by an endearing, facile performance by Tom Lenk, most famous for playing the nerdy semi-villain Andrew on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and as Nathan Fillion’s eager detective sidekick in Joss Whedon’s modern version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” His performance is guided by the direction of Theaterworks’ Artistic Director Rob Ruggeiro, who keeps the elfin-like Lenk moving comfortably around the stage as his character, Alex Moore, shares with the audience his experience working for La Streisand on her Malibu estate.
The playwright was inspired by Barbra’s glitzy coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design,” in which the diva reveals the subtle touches and fanciful details that she included as she redid her California property. In order to house her various collections of clothes, dolls and other tchockes , Streisand created, in the basement of her barn, a facsimile of a shopping mall, which allowed her to stroll through the shops and admire her acquisitions over the years. Tolins’ play is his own fictional take on what would happen if Barbra hired someone, in this case a young gay man, to staff and maintain the shops.
Tolins is careful to have his leading actor stress more than once that “Buyer and Cellar” is completely fictional, in light of the star’s litigious nature, and promise that he will not be impersonating her during the production, a promise that the talented Lenk keeps by offering just the merest of hints of her style of speech or the subtlest of suggestions of some of her more well-known hand motions whenever he has to recount her side of their conversations. As a result, Lenk’s recreation of Alex’s encounters with the estate owner are the hilarious high points of the play, as smitten employee and cunning boss play an intricate game of cat and mouse when Streisand decides to purchase one of the items in the doll shop.
Lenk gets to play a number of other characters as he spins Alex’s story, including Alex’s imploring boyfriend, Barbra’s personal assistant who handles the hiring and firing, and later in the play, the stalwart James Brolin, who undertakes a surreptitious errand for his bride. All of these he handles with equal aplomb, with occasional snippets of snark shining through.
Most of all, however, Lenk becomes our trusted and welcome tour guide, who enters the play hanging onto a side rail next to the audience segueing into a group sing-along of “The Way We Were” which had been playing as background music. Lenk then stations himself on a stool dead center in front of the stage, as close to the audience as a performer could get without landing in the first row. He adopts an appropriately affected tone as Alex, embracing Streisand’s outsized tome like a treasured document, as his voice and hands depict the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a fanboy in close proximity to his idol. Lenk’s patter never tires or bores as he sweeps the audience along in his ever-engrossing story of the professional and perhaps personal friendship that develops between the staffer and the celebrity.
Tolin’s play takes some interesting and unexpected plot turns which maintains the freshness of the material, while Lenk himself remains an always enchanting and amiable presence. In addition to its cleverness, “Buyer and Cellar” can be quite touching at times as we catch glimpses of Alex’s home life with his devoted boyfriend and await the moment we suspect is coming when Alex will be forced to face some disappointments about his employer.
Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set depicts an elegant curtained room containing a lusciously upholstered chaise upon which Lenk occasionally straddles, lounges or stretches as his story unfolds. It also represents a key piece of furniture in one of Streisand’s carefully appointed rooms which plays a major role in the action’s denouement. The mood setting lighting has been designed by Rob Denton to differentiate locations, and his projections, which include a number of movie scenes from the star’s lengthy career, provide a nice underscoring to Alex’s recollections. Zachary Moore’s sound design plays a special role in cueing Alex (and the audience) to specific arrivals and departures in the basement shopping mall and the insertion of a recognizable Streisand classic here and there adds to the evening’s overall enjoyment.
“Buyer and Cellar” is one of those plays that leaves you radiant as you leave the theatre, buoyed by the sharp writing and exquisite performance, amazed by the joy that you can’t believe you experienced during the previous 100 minutes.
“Buyer and Cellar” runs through February 14. For tickets and information, call the Theaterworks box office at 860.527.7838 or visit their website at www.theaterworkshartford.org.