The idea of Barbra Streisand owning an underground shopping mall sounds too gloriously absurd to be true. Yet the mall—which features, among other things, candy and costume stores—is a reality and the topic of Jonathan Tolins' fictional one-man satire Buyer & Cellar, which has been brought to life in a lavish and hysterical production at Portland Center Stage.
The play, directed by Rose Riordan, is partly a meditation on the toxicity of affluence and celebrity. But it also triumphs as a witty descent into the bowels of Barbraland and as a showcase for actor Nick Cearley, who gives an impish yet loving tribute to one of the most fascinating and entertaining icons in the history of American pop culture.
Buyer & Cellar stars Cearley as Alex More, a Los Angeles actor recently fired from his job at Disneyland's Toontown. Out of desperation, he pursues a gig at a private shopping center, not realizing its owner is the Oscar-winning star of Funny Girl and Yentl, who uses the mall as a glorified storage space for her many possessions.
Cearley embodies multiple characters, including Alex's boyfriend Barry and Barbra herself. Despite being a Streisand agnostic when he is hired, Alex rapidly becomes so enamored with her signature blend of glamor and spunkiness, he experiences what he only half-jokingly describes as "religious ecstasy."
Barry, on the other hand, is no believer. He cites Streisand's 1996 melodrama The Mirror Has Two Faces as proof of what he sees as her narcissistic hunger to bully audiences into appreciating her beauty. Buyer & Cellar's affectionate tone suggests Tolins is less cynical, but the play does question whether Barbra views Alex as an actual friend or just another artifact to collect in her gargantuan basement.
While this is the eighth production of Buyer & Cellar that Cearley has starred in, time doesn't seem to have dimmed his zeal for the play. He takes Alex's Barbra love to spectacularly devout levels—the sight of him on his knees with his arms raised in a show of subservient rapture is side-splittingly funny—while skillfully altering his voice and movements to channel the unique energies and eccentricities of each character. To witness him loosen his wrists and relax his voice to convey Barbra's casual air of entitlement, for instance, is to behold a chameleonic genius at work.
Barbra's personality is also expressed through Kristeen Willis Crosser's evocative scenic and lighting design. Silhouettes of Barbra's possessions—vases, teddy bears, teacups and so much more—are projected across the set, suggesting that even when Alex is alone, Barbra looms over him like a gaudy ghost.
Buyer & Cellar is partly the story of a woman who has become so lost in her luxurious existence that she can no longer see a world beyond the one she has created. Yet while Barbra comes across as an almost tragic figure, the play's best moments are its silliest. That includes a sequence that consists of Barbra pretending to be a normal customer and haggling with Alex over the price of a doll—before triumphantly presenting him with a fake coupon.
Buyer & Cellar is about many things—including work, love and Barbra's boundless passion for frozen yogurt—but most of all, it is a reminder that greatness and ridiculousness are rarely far apart.
SEE IT: Buyer & Cellar is at Portland Center Stage at the Armory, 128 NW 11th Ave., pcs.org. 7:30 pm Tuesday-Sunday, 2 pm Saturday-Sunday, noon Thursday, through March 3. No 2 pm show Feb. 23. $18-$62.