BWW Review: Dustin Tucker Scores a Tour de Force in Portland Stage's BUYER & CELLAR
Portland Stage's current production, Jonathan Tolins' one-man, bitter-sweet comedy, Buyer & Cellar, offers Maine audiences a chance to revel not only in the protean talents of Dustin Tucker, who gives a compelling, engaging, irresistible ninety-minute virtuosic performance, but also in Tolins' agile sense of situation and ear for subtle character interaction. That all the characters (some five) are played by Tucker with the uncanny ability to make each unique is no small part of the charm and appeal of this production.
Tolins' hero, Alex Moore, is an underemployed actor who finds himself playing one of the strangest and most engaging roles of his life - that of celebrity assistant to Barbra Streisand. In the course of his service to the legendary actress/singer - as the keeper of her basement collection of treasures - Moore grapples with his own notions of celebrity and success, examines the sometimes illusory borders between reality and fantasy, and achieves moments of real connection with Streisand, but these, like the imaginary shopping street she has created, ultimately prove ephemeral.
Tolins' humor is urbane, subtle, self-deprecating; he is often the master of the bon mot, but beneath the surface of the laughter, he achieves a depth of quiet empathy that humanizes the characters and renders the bizarre role playing something more than vanity. The playwright weaves into his work the theme of otherness - Moore as a gay man, Streisand as a woman for all her monumental success carries with her the albatrosses of her humble Jewish origins in Brooklyn, her inner insecurities about not being seen as pretty, and the ultimate loneliness that comes from reaching the top.
Kate Galvin directs with in a taut, fast pacEd Manner, choosing understatement over flamboyance. Together with Tucker, who is a master of multi-character work, she devises visual, vocal, and physical conceits which make the shifts between characters clean and clear. Meg Anderson creates a magical subterranean world that begins with windowless linen colored set that opens during the course of the play to reveal some of the celebrity's brightly colored hidden treasures. Andrew Hungerford's lighting adds a psychological dimension to the visuals, often changing color to evoke the images Moore describes, and Seth Asa Sengel adds a subdued sound design that has its tongue-in-cheek moments, such as Moore's Gypsy fantasy. Kathleen P. Brown dresses Tucker in appropriate casual attire, giving him a single scarf with which the actor works wonders.
With all these virtues, a play like Buyer & Cellar only succeeds in the hands of an actor who can mesmerize an audience for the duration, and Dustin Tucker once again proves himself that artist. From the moment he enters through the audience as the narrator of the story, he engages his audience, holds them in the palm of his hand, and takes them with him on the play's adventure. Technically adroit, he creates each individual character through vivid vocal and physical differentiations, and his impeccable sense of timing makes every shift natural and seamless. But beyond the brilliant skill, it is his unvarnished openness and vulnerability as an actor that gives the play its most arrestingly poignant moments, such as Streisand's confession about wishing to be pretty, or Alex's epiphany about having made a connection to the great star, or his angry breakup with his boyfriend Barry. Moreover, he accomplishes all this with a genuineness that avoids caricature and impersonation and seeks only to find the inner truth and humanity in the roles.
Buyer Cellar is a polished, moving, vibrant theatrical experience not to be missed. Not only does Tolins' play raise some very universal issues about the need for all human beings to make connections with one another and to achieve self-respect, but Portland Stage's production also offers theatre goers an opportunity to experience one of Maine's most dynamic actors, completely in his element!
Photos courtesy of Portland Stage, J. Reece, photographer
Buyer Cellar runs from February 28 - March 26, 2017 at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-774-0465 www.portlandstage.org