What mysterious secrets lurk in Barbra Streisand's basement?
This may not be a question you've ever asked yourself. Nonetheless, it's given a highly entertaining answer in American playwright Jonathan Tolins's sharp comedy Buyer and Cellar, which closes the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre season.
Tolin's one-man show, performed here by local actor and comedian Ryan James Miller, takes its inspiration from Streisand's book My Passion for Design, which details the construction of her Malibu dream home.
Among other things, that book revealed that the living legend constructed a sort of underground mall to house some of her collection. It's a surreal image — a subterranean mall of quaint storefronts, with no customers save Babs herself.
"She built a shopping mall in her basement," our narrator, Alex More, says. "Remember — this is the part that's real."
From there, Tolins takes a flight of pure fancy, imaging that Streisand has hired a lone employee — out-of-work actor Alex — to staff the mall. What unfolds is a strange and bizarrely funny exploration of not just the excesses of a superstar, but also of the nature of friendship, as Alex forms a fascinating, if completely unequal, bond with Streisand herself.
Playing Alex, Streisand and a few other supporting characters, Miller delivers a superb performance. Anyone familiar with his work with the local sketch comedy troupe Hot Thespian Action knows he's a remarkably good, rubber-faced comedian.
He gets to show off those talents throughout, often with pricelessly funny physicality, like Alex's wordless reaction to seeing one of Streisand's iconic dresses. His face melts in a combination of awe and unspeakable joy, and it's a bit of physical comedy brilliance.
But if you were lucky enough to see him in WJT's outstanding productions of both part of Angels in America, you also know he's a very talented actor, and he gets to prove that again here.
He creates distinct characters throughout, delivering a gracefully nuanced impersonation of Streisand that goes well beyond being a campy send-up. Indeed, she becomes a deeply complicated character here herself, and Tolins skates a fine line between reverence and poking a bit of fun at the star.
Miller also manages to make Alex a satisfying complex, but still likeable, guide through Streisand's world. And under Kayla Gordon's direction, the interaction between Alex and Barbra is sharply timed, with Miller bouncing back and forth between characters seamlessly.
Tolins's script is smart, self-referential, and full of punchy laughs (Alex assures us, for example, that Tolins as playwright would never mock "someone as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand").
It meanders a little on its way to a conclusion that feels like it might be stretching a bit to put a bow on the preceding 100 or so minutes.
But that's a small qualm — it delivers plenty of laughs along the way, and gives an actor like Miller a chance to turn in a delightfully engaging performance.
Whether or not you're a Streisand fan, Buyer and Cellar is easy to buy into.
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's production of Buyer and Cellar runs at the Berney Theatre (in the Asper Jewish Community Campus) until May 15.
WJT announces 2016-17 season
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre recently announced their upcoming three show season. Here's what's coming up at WJT:
Another Way Home (Oct. 27-Nov. 6): American writer Anna Ziegler's dramedy centres around the Nadelman family. When parents Lillian and Phillip visit their teenage son at summer camp, he runs away. As they search for him, family secrets are revealed, and the Nadelmans have to evaluate what being a family means.
How to Disappear Completely (Mar. 23-Apr. 2, 2017): When Vancouver lighting designer Itai Erdal got a call telling him his mother was dying of cancer, he traveled to Israel to be with her during her last months. He also documented the time, and draws on his film and pictures in this reflection on his time with her.
The Whipping Man (May 4-14 2017): In this 2006 play from American writer Matthew Lopez, a wounded Jewish Confederate soldier returns to his Virginia home as Passover begins and the American Civil War ends. When he arrives, he and two of his family's former slaves are forced to confront the legacy of the war, his family and slavery.