Tony Kushner may subtitle his epic drama Angels in America a “gay fantasia on national themes,” but playwright Jonathan Tolins in Buyer & Cellar, deliciously staged at Main Street Theater, delivers a much more down-to-earth, approachable fantasy. It's also much funnier.
Admission into the Gay Boy's Club requires only one rule: unwavering devotion to Judy and Barbra. There are lesser deities one might adore – Liza, Bette (Midler and/or Davis), Marlene – but Garland and Streisand are sine qua non in the heavenly sphere of gay fandom.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds, Secrets of the Trade, Midler's Divine Millennium Tour) prances through this adulation with crisp bitch-snap humor, warm empathy, and sharp tongue firmly planted.
The story is preposterous, as we're informed right at the beginning by unemployed actor Alex (Doug Atkins, playing all the characters with breathless panache). “What I'm going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”
Alex has been hired to be Ms. Streisand's sole employee in her “Street of Shops” basement, a gargantuan faux Edwardian emporium of lifetime acquisitions she built under the faux barn with windmill and pond on her immense Malibu complex. All of this conspicuous consumption was deliriously enshrined in her lavish coffee-table book “My Passion for Design,” with photographs from the star herself. The basement street, ridiculously paneled and chandeliered, held rooms full of Cecil Beaton and Irene Sharaff costumes from Broadway and Hollywood, antique dolls and toys, a working soda fountain, a gift shoppe, a FroYo machine – a superstar's ultimate mini mall of excess. Except, she's the only shopper. This mall is the true part.
A rabid Streisand fan, and as part of his “gay birthright and heritage,” Alex is in seventh heaven to be hired for such a plum job, although his duties include dusting and arranging the multitudinous tchotchkes, listening to the hum of the popcorn machine, and swooning over her “People” costume from Funny Girl. Boyfriend Barry, with his gay radar on catty overdrive, warns that this will not end well, but Alex is undeterred. He's got stars in his eyes, the biggest star in the universe.
When he finally meets La Streisand, who negotiates like a Ludlow Street yenta to buy an old bubble-blowing doll that she already owns, he matches her weirdness with a bit of his own. They bond, as much as a megastar can bond to any lesser mortal, and their proceeding relationship, paralleled to his own unsteady one with Barry, romps without too much seriousness for the next 90 minutes.
There are enough wicked references to L.A. gay lifestyle to remake RuPaul's Drag Race in triplicate. Bea Arthur, Cloris Leachman, David Geffen, Mildred Pierce, Summerstock, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George, all get a dropkick shout out. A few citations are so insider that their passing is marked by a thud, but Atkins' Alex is so infectious in his thrall to be in Streisand's presence that the audience giggles at his inflection if not his intention.
Another great set piece from Main Street, there's Marcos Everstijn's simple but elegant design of silk divan, classically embossed doors, and wall of illuminated photos that depict the excessively elegant rooms in the basement shopping center; J. Mitchell Cronin's high-key lighting; and Rebecca Greene Udden's splash of high grunge in Alex's skinny pants, gray suede shoes, and lapel sweater. Director Brandon Weinbrenner keeps Atkins bouncing through the space as if animated. And Atkins is delightfully animated all by himself, a tour de force performance of cheekbones, gleaming smile, and sleek stage presence. He's the ultimate gay boy caught up in idolatry. That his idol has feet of clay, well...of course.
Although both main characters are looking to find their own Utopia, their own safe space, how they compensate is quietly affecting. Streisand, like Welles' Kane, accumulates stuff because she can, creating her personal fantasy world in lieu of beauty (?) and mother love. Betrayed by Streisand's false friendship, Alex embraces the space between his outstretched arms, “struggling to make a perfect little world to fit our life into.” What fits within his arms is enough stuff for him.
Buyer & Cellar continues through August 12 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; and 3 p.m. Sundays at Main Street Theater, Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $39-$42. Tonight's July 14 performance, a special fund-raiser, will start at 7 p.m. and tickets to this performance are $50-$75.
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