Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Buyer & Cellar
Phoenix Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of The TomKat Project, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Motown the Musical, Sweet Charity, The Wedding Singer , The History of the Devil, and Avenue Q

Toby Yatso
Jonathan Tolins' relatively new one man play Buyer & Cellar takes a brief passage in a design book written by megastar Barbra Streisand and turns them into a humorous and touching 100 minutes of pure joy. The play had a healthy Off-Broadway run, and Phoenix Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the comedy in a tightly directed production with a spirited performance by Toby Yatso.

The book Streisand wrote is called "My Passion for Design," which goes into elaborate detail about the making of her palatial Malibu estate. Buried in the middle of the book is a mention of the "shopping mall" she had built in the basement of her barn to house her vast collection of various vintage clothes, film costumes, antique dolls, and other collectibles. Tolins used those few sentences as a springboard to fabricate the tale of struggling, out of work actor Alex More who ends up getting a job managing the series of stores.

At first Alex is unsure of what to do in his new job, so he patiently cleans and organizes the items, waiting for Streisand to show up to look at her belongings. When she finally makes her way down into the basement, in character as if to test More, and after looking around for a few minutes at the many items she has collected throughout her life, she comments to More, "you have nice things." The look that More gives her and the laughs that come from the audience make you realize two things. First, that Tolins has found a perfect tale to portray the eccentricities of a celebrity like Streisand, but one that also shows her vulnerability, loneliness and insecurities. And second, that Yatso's skilled acting abilities are a perfect match for the six characters in the play, with each role receiving a refined sense of individuality.

Tolins has written fully fleshed out characters of both More and Streisand that dive well below the superficial level of their shared interest of her "belongings" and into the past and present of each character. His dialogue is direct and clear and concise, especially what he has written for Streisand to say. He is able to take the public knowledge of her and create an evening that is both funny and emotional in the connection that he shows Streisand having with the man who works in her basement mall. That connection is fashioned by Tolins into a very touching and emotional one, one that, as Tolins writes it, you can easily imagine a big star like Streisand having with someone like More. Of course, the character of Streisand is clearly in control, especially when she asks More to stay late one night as she is having guests over. At first he thinks she is inviting him over to mingle with her celebrity friends, but she is only asking him to work late in case any of them want to come downstairs for frozen yogurt from the mall's sweet shop. Tolins has many plot points build throughout the play and there is also a bit about a throw pillow that has a nice pay off as well as a hilarious sequence involving a coupon.

Yatso is More but he also plays all the other characters, including his boyfriend, Streisand's housekeeper, and Streisand herself. Every one of these characters gets their own personal voice, style, and mannerisms and Yatso is completely natural in the way that he easily navigates between them, especially in the numerous conversations they have with each other. Yatso's channeling of Streisand is more than just a simple impression or imitation. While his take on Barbra may border a bit too close to the line of caricature, especially with his overly thick Brooklyn accent, he still manages a lot with just a simple facial expression, a dramatic pause between sentences, the specific pronunciation of a word, and his continually moving hand that sweeps Streisand's imaginary long hair off his forehead with Barbra's infamous long fingernails. In doing so, he fully embodies her and at the end of the evening it feels like she was there on stage and we got a glimpse into the mind of this mega celebrity.

Director Ron May, no stranger to starring in one man shows after his recent remounting of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs last summer, does an exceptional job of not only getting such an amazing performance out of Yatso, but also in his ability to stage the entire play on a set with just a few chairs and a table to portray multiple locations. The only downside is that there are numerous and slightly lengthy musical interludes between a few scenes that stop the momentum of the play. Since there are no major scene pieces that need to move during these moments, they don't seem to serve much purpose except to give Yatso a moment to wipe his brow. Scenic designer Eric Beeck has fabricated a beautiful, simple, yet tastefully exquisite, off-white set (or is that putty?) with numerous projections throughout to both help establish the locations and add to the hilarity. Lighting designer Daniel Davisson adds a lovely and colorful lighting plot that changes at times slowly, at other times dramatically, to help to portray the changing locals of the play.

Buyer & Cellar is a touching yet rollicking good time with an amazing performance by Yatso at the center. While it may run about five or 10 minutes too long, with a few similar situations repeated to get the point across that really don't have to be, it is still effective. It doesn't mock or ridicule Streisand, but instead paints her as an extremely wealthy, yet somewhat lonely person who just happens to have a lot of stuff that she wants to have on display to see. If you think of all of the things you might own that are packed up in boxes in your basement, it does seem much more logical to have them on display, even if that means you have to build a mall in your basement like Streisand did.

Buyer & Cellar runs through May 3rd, 2015, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 254-2151.

Director: Ron May
Scenic Designer/Video Designer: Eric Beeck
Costume Designer: Elizabeth Polley
Resident Dramaturge: Pasha Yamotahari
Sound Designer: Marie Quinn
Lighting Designer: Daniel Davisson
Props Designer: Tyler Welden
Stage Manager: Michelle Elias

Toby Yatso

Photo: Erin Evangeline Photography / Phoenix Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix