Fun fact: Underneath her massive Malibu mansion, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winner Barbra Streisand has an entire shopping mall—a treasure trove of her endless belongings, modeled after a decorative arts museum in Delaware. Another fun fact: No one staffs it.
In Buyer & Cellar, currently being put on at Portland Center Stage, playwright Jonathan Tolins answers the question, “What if the mall was staffed?” by exploring the ensuing dynamic between a lone employee, his boyfriend, his boss, his friends and Streisand herself. Oh, and it’s one actor playing all of these roles.
Nick Cearley stuns in this show with his portrayal of Alex Moore—the down-on-his-luck Los Angeles actor and ex-Disneyland cast member who is hired to be Barbra’s mall staff—and his playful impression of Streisand. One of the first things he promises the audience is he absolutely will not do an impression of the famous performer, which makes it all the more delightful when “The Lady Herself” first descends into the mall. He delivers a hilarious portrayal, somehow managing to fully encapsulate her spirit by merely adjusting his sweater and bringing up his shoulders.
Of course, he’s had time to practice—this is Cearley’s eighth time in the play, and it shows. He’s got a masterful grip on the marathon story, bringing a bold vibrancy to the sub-basement studio theater at PCS, painting several different scenes on the mostly bare stage with only his non-stop, yarn-spinning energy. Projections from designer Will Cotter aided Cearley in fleshing out each location. It was wise of PCS to not attempt to fully furnish the stage—from the emptiness grows a kind of elegance that our imaginations, guided by Cearley, can explore. It’s what Barbra would want.
We’re warned from the start that the story is fake. It’s a ridiculous premise. Still, the next hundred minutes that follow will tug at your heartstrings and have you laughing until your ribs hurt. Alex is our tour guide through both the mall and the mind of Barbra, who delights in pretending to be a customer in her own basement by giving a fake name and even haggling over the price of an antique doll she wishes to buy. It’s a seriously funny exploration into our obsession with icons and their peculiar removals from real life, dotted with occasional profound realizations from Alex.
As it turns out, being a cashier to the stars can create turmoil in your personal life, as Alex leaves his boyfriend, Barry, when he doubts that Barbra even cares about Alex. During one of his last shifts in the mall, Alex spins around, arms outstretched telling us: “A person’s arm span is roughly the same as their height, and that circle you make when you spin around is the extent to which you take up space in the universe. It seems to me, the stuff inside that circle is more important than all the stuff you put around it.”
It’s a feel-good moment that fits perfectly in the light-hearted romp. You’ll remember the merits of make-believe and child-like warm fuzzies that come from tending to a personal collection.
Whether you love, hate or don’t care about Streisand, go see Buyer & Cellar. If not for Streisand, then for playwright Tollins’ finely crafted story. He may insist it’s pure fiction, but Alex’s journey will ring true for anyone who’s ever found themselves doubting what their place is in the world.
Student tickets start at $25. PCS is also a participating member of Arts for All, meaning Oregon Trail cardholders can get tickets for $5. Buyer & Cellar runs Jan. 19–March 3 in the Ellen Bye Studio at The Armory in downtown, located directly on the A Loop and NS Portland Streetcar line and a few blocks away from all four MAX lines. More information can be found at pcs.org/buyer.