Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Buyer & Cellar
Just look back at spring's brilliantly original and challenging Trash Macbeth and The Two Character Play; or summer's great Grey Gardens, followed by an awe-inspiring Follies; or the autumn's beautifully re-imagined, but critically underappreciated Hamlet: See What I See, to name a few of the more dazzling baubles.
But there was also bad news: three well-loved theater people (all relatively young) died unexpectedly in the course of 2016: actor B. (for "Barry") Weller, Stray Dog Theatre's production manager Jay V. Hall, and most recently actor David Gibbs. So it almost seems like we're living in Shirley Jackson's 1948 short story "The Lottery," where a small town must sacrifice a random resident once a year to ensure a good harvest. Sacrifice or no, those three gentlemen must be smiling down as one great show after another pops up, flourishes gloriously, and then disappearsjust as unassumingly as each of them lived their lives before stepping off into the wings.
Buyer & Cellar may be the local theater's final great achievement of the year, a one-man show starring Will Bonfiglio (creator of Residents of Craigslist. And you still have a couple of weeks left to catch him in this jackpot of wit and delightthe exciting fable of a fanboy devoured by an elusive pop icon who's twisted ever so slightly by her own magnificence. In this script from 2013, unemployed actor Alex More lands a job curating Barbra Streisand's costume storage unit, which is decorated as a quaint row of vintage shops in the basement of her Malibu, California "barn." She's far too famous to go out in public, but at least she can pretend there, with Alex as a patient "shopkeeper."
Jonathan Tolins wrote Buyer & Cellar and also penned Twilight of the Golds, and this one man show enjoyed success Off-Broadway before its debut in St. Louis in 2014. But I had trouble then understanding what all the fuss was about, and had the sneaking suspicion that theater audiences must be mawkishly embracing another overtly gay character out of sheer habit. Having seen only that one production, I even suspected there must be something inherently wrong with the script itself, till now.
This time the jokes are increasingly delirious, under the direction of Gary F. Bell. And there are great, bizarre moments where Alex's sense of the great woman is redefined, as when Ms. Streisand suddenly chides him for thinking she's matchmaking on behalf of her own gay son: "you're not even a doctor!" she scoffs, spurring Alex into one of the show's two or three elegant "triple-takes."
And look for a steady, barely noticeable accretion of wistfulness for all the things that might have beenin spite of the drumbeat of show-biz cynicism. This accumulated featherbed of sighs lofts up to a perfect moment at the end, when (not-too-much-of-a-spoiler alert) Alex is seated in near darkness, basking in the glow of a huge projection of Ms. Streisand up on the wall behind him, as a purple twilight fades to black. Here, so perfect.
The production uses meticulously rendered photo montages, softly projected against the set (along with sound-cues) as subtle accents to the heighten the legend of the singer/actress/director/producer. Maybe these would have been regarded as extraneous in other stagings, but here they add a great deal of charm and iconography to the superstar status of the lady in question, and to Alex's growing devotion. Which is not to sell Mr. Bonfiglio short: his other characters, who don't rate their own special effects, Sharon and Barry and James Brolin, are just as full of life and depth here as either Alex or Ms. Streisand.
The whole thing billows gleefully in the breeze like a rainbow flag on Pride Week in the Castro. For depth and breadth, I'd say it's the best show ever at Stray Dogexcept for at least ten others that soon come to mind, being equally outstanding in vastly different ways over the previous 13 seasons. Mr. Bell (the Artistic Director) simply calls this his annual "non-holiday" holiday show.
And here's to 2017!
Through December 17, 2016, at the Tower Grove Abbey. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.