Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar is a confectioner’s dream of a play. Somehow the playwright infuses just the right amount of sweetness into the story without inducing tooth decay. The same can be said of the actor J. Conrad Frank (a.k.a. The Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy) who charms the audience for the duration of this one-man, one-act play.
Frank is a natural on stage, even in trousers. From the back of the auditorium, humming Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were”, he instantly takes the audience with him as he starts to inhabit the role of Alex More. Alex is an unemployed actor living in Los Angeles. Recently fired from his Disneyland job, someone recommends him for a position at a celebrity’s home in Malibu. Despite the lack of details and general air of mystery, and perhaps because of them, he takes the job.
It will come as no surprise that the celebrity in question turns out to be Barbra Streisand. In a funny little coda before the play begins, Frank lets the audience know that the story we’re about to hear is fictional. Tolins, we’re told, was fascinated by a book Streisand wrote My Passion for Design (2010). In it, Streisand photographs the many opulent (yet also beige and banal) rooms of her Malibu mansion. This Oprah Winfrey level of lavishness, however, gets amped up a notch when we learn that she’s converted the basement level of one building on her compound into a series of shops — essentially creating a private mall to house all of her acquisitions.
It is to this cellar mall that Alex More has been hired as an attendant. The job, as much as he can glean about it, is to keep the various “shoppes” tidy, to clean the collection of dresses and dust the room full of dolls. This lifeless space appears to require the same level of order and astringent cleanliness as Joan Crawford’s. The wildcard for Alex: Streisand sometimes makes an appearance in the basement to spend time with her possessions.
Buyer & Cellar turns the fantasy of meeting and befriending a celebrity inside out and upside down. Alex meets Streisand from time to time and slowly earns her trust and attention, if not her actual friendship. Frank plays Alex with a great deal of pathos. There’s a subplot about his supportive boyfriend that fleshes both of them out. But crucially, he doesn’t overplay or dumb down his version of Barbra into sassy camp.
In the end, the details about the Malibu mall, her son Jason, her marriage to James Brolin and Streisand’s fondness for frozen yogurt feel so on the nose that you want to ask Tolins: “This isn’t really fictional, is it?” If it is entirely made up, this candy colored fantasia attests to the power of the artist’s imagination while, at the same time, offering up a warning: Celebrities, they’re not just like us.
Buyer & Cellar, through April 24, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness, 415-861-8972.