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BWW Review: 'Blanche, Did Ya Know There Are Rats in the Cellar?' Circuit's BUYER AND CELLAR Clarifies That

If Theater Memphis' production of THE PRODUCERS dishes out a seven-course feast, and Playhouse on the Square's BILLY ELLIOT offers a three-meal-deal, then Circuit's BUYER AND CELLAR serves up an appetizer, but a tasty and swiftly devoured one at that. Instead of glorious sets and costumes, Jonathan Tolin's witty and incisive BUYER relies on words and one very talented player; moreover, it was inspired by an oversized coffee-table book by none other than legendary diva Barbra Streisand, MY PASSION FOR DESIGN. While Ms. Streisand may not have overreached Michael Jackson's NEVERLAND, she nonetheless opened eyes and caused mouths to gape when she described a Macy's-like basement which would cause the owner of an antiques mall to choke on his own feather duster - everything from dolls to antique dresses. Whether or not Streisand intended it, the sheer vulgarity of such a notion becomes blatantly obvious to those of us who, according to Marie Antoinette's fateful-but-frivolous statement, "eat cake." (I couldn't help thinking of EVITA Peron's ironic "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," sung from the balcony of the Casa Rosada as, fabulously coiffed and gowned, she claims to be one who sprang from the poor - Streisand herself, appearing eventually in the play, will similarly describe her harsh beginnings as well, especially in regard to her first "doll.")

Tolin imagines what it would be like if a Streisand worshipper ("Alex," here, supposedly related to Sir Thomas More, whose UTOPIA cleverly alludes to Alex's new position) were to find himself caretaker of the mall-like basement of her Malibu mansion. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that an "institution is the lengthened shadow of one man," though "woman" here is the operative word; and what must it be like to toil within that shadow? Not long ago, the documentary TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM detailed the careers of back-up singers and artists who never quite achieved the fame of those they supported; these artists emerged with some respect, because, despite the setbacks and reverses of their careers, they nonetheless had something to offer. Here, basking in the wide-eyed worship of the rarely seen Streisand, Alex, an actor who hasn't been able rise above the basement, twiddles his thumbs, listens to the incessant hum of the frozen yogurt machine, and rearranges dolls as he awaits the occasional encounter with Streisand (seen here as self-absorbed and an expert on "all things Barbra"). (Does anyone rememberl the caretaker of penny-pinching Jack Benny's underground vault?)

Anyone familiar with SEINFELD may well recall the character "Elaine" and her oddly subservient relationship with the elderly, wealthy "Mr. Pitt." She runs all over New York trying to find the socks he likes, and while she is sharp-tongued and opinionated with "Jerry," "George," and "Kramer," she becomes another person when cowering before Mr. Pitt. It's a curious relationship, and there's something about the slavish devotion of Alex to Streisand that irritates and disturbs Alex's gay boyfriend "Barry," who has no sympathy with Streisand's hard-luck history.

While it would be interesting to see different actors/actresses assaying these three principal roles, Tolin has made this a one-man show, and Director Anne Scarbrough has had the good luck to put young Jordan Nichols through his paces here. Nichols proves what I've suspected all along: Despite his young, good looks and talent, he is more a character actor than mere leading man. I've watched him move from "Matt" in THE FANTASTICKS to "Link Larkin" in HAIRSPRAY to "Marius" in LES MISERABLES -- and he is always a pleasure. Here, however, he has the daunting challenge to create three divergent principal characters, and he does so with subtlety and detail. His Alex is appropriately starry-eyed and defensive of his employer; his "Barbra" comes across as pinching a penny so hard that even Abraham Lincoln would cry out for John Wilkes Booth to put him out of his misery; and his "Barry" rolls his eyes and shakes his head in disbelief at Alex's faith in Barbra. Yet, it would be facile to suggest that these three are mere caricatures. For example, despite her ego and superstar suspicions, Barbra emerges as insecure and strangely needy. It's amazing to listen to Mr. Nichols' shifts in voice and to watch the characters' gesticulations; it's a tour de force performance.

Admittedly, BUYER AND CELLAR would seem to have an esoteric appeal - Streisand, like Judy Garland before her, has an admiring homosexual fan base (and didn't Theatre Memphis' recent BOY FROM OZ remind us of that?) Yet, those who would, because of that, neglect what might be deemed a frivolous "throwaway" might be making a sad mistake: This play isn't just "fluff" or, as Shakespeare might call it, "much ado about nothing." There is a very real point to be made (particularly as Alex departs at the end of the play): Who we are and what we are amount to much more than the things that tend to accumulate about us. Through September 6.


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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)