Friday, April 24, 2015

theatre review - BUYER & CELLAR - Phoenix Theatre - April 22, 2015

Toby Yatso
(Photo: Erin Evangeline Photography)
"Jonathan Tolins' 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 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, 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. 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 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. 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." -Gil Benbrook, Talkin' Broadway (click here to read the complete review)

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