Theatre

MTC falls short in its one-man deconstructive tribute to the incomparable Barbra Streisand. By Peter Craven.

MTC’s ‘Buyer and Cellar’

Ash Flanders in MTC’s Buyer and Cellar.
Credit: Jeff Busby

The world is awash with commercial theatre of a self-reflexive, if not parasitic, kind and the wonder is that more than one road seems to lead back to Barbra Streisand. Last year we had that great comic character actress, Miriam Margolyes, bizarrely cast as Sue Mengers, Streisand’s agent and confidante – originally a Broadway vehicle for Bette Midler. Now we have Buyer and Cellar, another one-hander, this time about a guy who works in the shop that Streisand has in the basement of her Malibu mansion, which apparently replicates a New England dream house.

It was done in New York by Michael Urie, who came to prominence a few years ago as the pretty little elf in the ferocious fashion magazine on Ugly Betty. It requires an actor who is starry, easy on the eye in a gay-boy-next-door way, and capable of deft transitions between wisecracking comedy and a poignant sentimentalism that should skirt the surface but not wallow in mush.

It is performed in Gary Abrahams’ production of Buyer and Cellar with a strenuous and caricaturing camp by Ash Flanders of Sisters Grimm fame in the manner of a stand-up stricken with the illusion that he has the charm and razzamatazz of the young Jim Carrey. The upshot is lurchingly amateur despite the discernible talents of the director and the would-be star, who consistently fails to shine but not for lack of trying.

What is it about Streisand? There’s the extraordinary voice, of course, and the capacity to act and the absolute will to achieve that makes the ordinary looks into an emblem of supreme talent. Young women all round the world rode in in triumph with Barbra Streisand because she didn’t conform to any masculine ideal of beauty, and the talent – musical, histrionic, executive – was so massive. There’s all that and there’s also the myth of Streisand as the supremely difficult star, not because she was troubled like Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, but because she was Trouble, a storm cloud on anybody’s horizon.

Buyer and Cellar is a slight piece of writing in constant danger of appearing trite and downright silly if it loses the ability to conjure whatever magic there is to be derived from the tension between the young out-of-work actor trying to get by in LA and the feasibility of his coming eye to eye, within the confines of her self-constructed fantasy world, with the great star.

So here we have the story of how he gets the gig and how Streisand comes to buy an antique doll from him and how they haggle over the price. We see him serve her frozen yoghurt – or see him recollect doing so – and we see him argue with his boyfriend about the myth of poor little unloved, ugly Barbra. Our guy is for her, the boyfriend thinks she’s a narcissistic megalomaniac.

As the show develops – and it requires tour de force shifts of tempo from the performer – he comes to be an adviser to the star. He suggests that she play Mama Rose in Gypsy, which she leaps at – as if the idea could never have occurred to her of playing the role done by everybody from Ethel Merman to Bette Midler, and which is absolutely within her range – and our guy proceeds to coach her in it, playing all the other roles. She also likes the colour of his hair, mousy in this instance, and there is a climactic scene when he is allowed into her actual house and onto her actual sofa and realises – it would be wrong to spoil – that her motivations are less sympathetic than they may seem.

So there is the inevitable expulsion from Eden and the audience – at least hypothetically – feels that it has had an intimate whip around Streisand, or at least the idea of Streisand.

We get plenty of discussion of the career and we get a shrewd – farcical, but also shrewd – apparition of the star and monster in what might well be a delicious send-up of her own magnificent obsessiveness.

There’s no point in saying Buyer and Cellar is vulgar or that is feeds on the fag-end of celebrity culture as if the world were incapable of imagining a mythological dimension greater than its obsession with stars. That can be taken as read and is hardly worth crying over and, besides, Streisand is not only a very great star – a woman of immense talent separately from her fame – but, according to reports, an ornery and formidable person.

And Jonathan Tolins’ script is clever at playing on the obviousness of its own dramatic landscape with kinky and unpredictable swerves in and out of cartoonery and flashes of real human feeling that are cleverly telescoped – because the reigning deity of this world is intimately known from her every inflection and mannerism – and are also a caution in terms of the legend she has partly erected around herself and partly, by necessity, seen grow up in the vicinity of her own career and her own persona.

Buyer and Cellar needs, if it is to work, a lustre and a vitamin that rivals its own obsessive focus. In other words, if you want to write a Broadway hit about the woman who turned Funny Girl into a Broadway hit in 1964 and subsequently went on to become the Notre Dame of Brooklyn womanhood made not only good but all-powerful, then you had better have a lot of chutzpah and quite a bit of star talent in your back pocket. Never mind the unattainable Streisand: in a merely Celine Dion world there will have to be a hell of a will to power if you are to create a complexly mocking and mushy tribute to deconstructing and reconfiguring the myth of first a gay icon, then a superstar and finally a kind of enigma of the all-enveloping, all-destroying Mother.

All of which is implicit in Buyer and Cellar, this crowd-pleasing piece of tosh that goes badly wrong in its Melbourne production.

Look, there are some good jokes here. The description of the film The Mirror Has Two Faces is so good it survives Ash Flanders’ treatment. And so does the comparison of the great Lauren Bacall speaking with the conviction of a hostage victim when she declares that Barbra was the pretty one.

But Flanders is wrong for a show like this, whatever his talents. His American accent is disastrously haphazard, his schtick is self-conscious and arch where it should be confessional and engaging. He’s constantly stepping back from his material in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, whimsical way that creates a curtain of alienation as if he were commenting on his material rather than letting it rip.

And this is fatal because the material of Buyer and Cellar is so traditional in its juggling of comedy and sentiment that it places itself beyond criticism, at least from the mouth of the performer who is articulating it.

And Gary Abrahams, who is a natural, subtle, spotlighting director, very good at presenting an actor in a halo of light in encircling darkness, makes matters worse in this production, which seems simply to amplify Flanders’ weakness, his inability to get an easy naturalism, his inability to shine in a tinsel world. Dean Bryant, the reigning master of this magic lantern and marshmallow kind of theatre, at least ensured with I’ll Eat You Last that while we were watching the great Miriam Margolyes – born to play the comic roles in Shakespeare and Wilde – as Sue Mengers she had an authority that banished all thought her role would most naturally have been taken by a Bette Midler or a Joy Behar.

Flanders is wrong and everything he does looks mistimed, botched, a parodic miscalculation, so that the upshot of Buyer and Cellar is that two men of higher reputation, Abrahams and Flanders, seem caught in the clutches of the wrong kind of high-school musical – minus the songs.

The clue to Buyer and Cellar, I suspect, is that the hero should be a funny boy – in the Streisand sense that we should see the candle of stardom lit before our eyes – but he should also be a gorgeous boy as Michael Urie’s occupation of the role makes clear. The actor I would have liked to have seen is Keegan Joyce – Josh Thomas’s boyfriend Arnold, in the sitcom Please Like Me.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Fallen star". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.