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Regional Reviews by Bill Eadie

Buyer & Cellar
The Old Globe

Also see Bill's review of The White Snake


David Turner
Buyer & Cellar, the Off-Broadway hit, comes with so many rave reviews to its credit that it's difficult to try to see it with fresh eyes. Yes, Jonathan Tolins's play about Barbra Streisand's expression of her celebrity is funny, and yes, it most assuredly benefitted from being performed by well-known actors.

To the play first: it may be a work of fiction, as the text disclaims repetitively (and with increasing hilarity) during its opening segment, but it is based on details of Ms. Streisand's home life, as detailed in her book "My Passion for Design."

Now, this tome is available in mint condition for around $8.50, according to Amazon.com, and it has been dubbed by New York writer Myra Chanin to be "the most narcissistic book ever written." So, it's surprising that Mr. Tolins's play features a fairly soft take on Ms. Streisand as a person, as well as a celebrity.

The text offers as an excuse Ms. Streisand's well-known tendency toward litigation when she is displeased, but I think that's a dodge. The play is remarkably insightful in understanding the lives of actors in Los Angeles (down to a fascination with the theatricality of KCRW's radio broadcasts of Santa Monica City Council meetings), and Mr. Tolins may well have seen an opportunity to understand how one of the biggest stars in town fits into the mix.

The result is a comedy that takes its fairly ridiculous premise seriously and thus takes its subject seriously as well, while still leaving ample room for humor.

Our guide is Alex More, who is part of the underside of L.A. actors.

Alex is perfect for the part. He's gay, he's been around the L.A. scene long enough to know the score, and while he doesn't worship Barbra Streisand, he has a boyfriend who does. Alex takes a job staffing the basement mall that Ms. Streisand has created to display her collections and her remembrances, a position where mostly he's a caretaker. But, an actor is required because occasionally "Sadie" will slip downstairs and act as though she wants to buy something.

Alex manages to improvise his way through the first visit, Sadie eventually becomes "Barbra," and a relationship develops. And, like all relationships, this one has its ups and downs.

Because Alex is our guide, we, as audience, have to like and trust him through his 100 minute-long story. An actor already known to the audience might have the best chance of succeeding, and Buyer & Cellar was blessed during its Off-Broadway run by the presence of Michael Urie, a veteran of both the New York and Los Angeles acting communities. Mr. Urie's popular role in the TV series "Ugly Betty" probably allowed him to introduce the appropriate amount of snark needed to keep Mr. Tolins's soft take on Ms. Streisand from getting mushy.

When Mr. Urie was replaced in New York, the producers went for a similar combination of experiences. First, Christopher J. Hanke took the role, and he was followed by Barrett Foa. Now that a tour featuring Mr. Urie has opened in London, other productions are opening at regional venues, including nearly simultaneous ones in Sacramento, Palm Springs, Phoenix, and San Diego.

Most of these venues feature local actors, generally with some renown. The Old Globe has booked New York-based David Turner for its production and has hired the veteran director Ron Lagomarsino to helm the production.

Mr. Turner provides the audience with none of the identification that so favored Mr. Urie, and the approach that actor and director have worked out finds Mr. Turner playing Alex as fresh faced and more of a naf than I expected. No worries about trying to stuff Alex into anyone's closet, but most of the ironic attitude that constitutes the gay standard of public humor is noticeably missing. Mr. Turner's Alex is realistic—he doesn't worship Barbra—but he does allow Mr. Tolins's softness to go mushy every so often.

It's not a major fault. Mr. Turner is eminently likeable and congenial from the very beginning, and he proves to be a worthy host. But if the production sags just a bit at times, I'd guess that it's because of the combination of script and line readings.

The Globe has given Buyer & Cellar a professional in-the-round production that functions to pull the audience into the story well. Erik Flatmo's scenic design features just enough questionable choices to make me think that there's some satirical commentary going on. Charlotte Devaux's costume designs look contemporary and stylish, and the whole enterprise is well served by Philip S. Rosenberg's lighting design. Lindsay Jones composed original music and provides a sound design that makes certain Mr. Turner can be heard throughout the house, no matter which way he faces.

Buyer & Cellar has proved popular with audiences, and a week's extension of the Old Globe's production was announced before performances began. Audience members will come in the door primed to laugh and enjoy themselves, and it's a good bet that their expectations will be fulfilled.

The Old Globe presents Buyer & Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins, through May 10, 2015. Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, in the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, a part of the Conrad Prebys Theatre Center, in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets start at $29 and may be obtained by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org.

Featuring David Turner. Directed by Ron Lagomarsino, with Erik Flatmo (Scenic Design), Charlotte Devaux (Costume Design), Philip S. Rosenberg (Lighting Design), and Lindsay Jones (Original Music and Sound Design).


Photo: Jim Cox

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie



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