Barbra’s ‘Cellar’ comes to life in stranger-than-truth one-man show
Actor Tom Lenk is having great fun playing the leading man in the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of the comedy “Buyer and Cellar.” But he is also having a blast, he said, playing the show’s leading lady — some might say the consummate leading lady — Barbra Streisand.
Just to be clear, “Buyer and Cellar” is no drag show, but rather Jewish playwright Jonathan Tolins’ backhanded tribute to an American icon, a one-man show that has Lenk tackling a tour de force blending hilarity with poignancy and truth with fiction.
The show premiered off-Broadway in 2013 to critical acclaim and won the Drama Desk Award that year. It opens for its inaugural Pittsburgh run on May 28 at the O’Reilly Theater as the concluding show in the PPT’s 40th anniversary season.
Lenk plays Alex, an out-of-work actor, who engages the audience in a retelling of his gig working as the clerk in a mall in Babs’ basement, where she showcases her inventories of collectibles in a “street of shops.”
That Streisand does in fact have such a mall in her Malibu basement is true. That someone actually works there full time as its clerk is probably not.
The line between fact and fiction is defined at the outset of the play by Alex, as he addresses the audience directly: “Before I tell you this story, we need to get a few things straight. First, this is a work of fiction. You know that, right? I mean the premise is preposterous. What I’m going to tell you couldn’t possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”
The story was inspired, though, by Streisand’s real 2010 book, “My Passion for Design,” which is a 330-page photographic digest of her estate on the California coast. What piqued Tolins’ interest when perusing the book was the star’s basement mall, which includes a gift shop, a vintage clothing boutique, Bee’s Doll Shop, an antiques emporium and a frozen yogurt shop.
The detail that Tolins injected into the picture via his imagination was the employee Barbra hired to serve her, that mall’s sole customer.
Lenk, as Alex, assumes a wide range of personas in telling his story, including Barbra herself; Alex’s boyfriend, Barry, who is more than a tiny bit obsessed with the superstar; and Barbra’s husband, James Brolin.
The role requires a good dose of stamina, according to the show’s director, Don Stephenson, which is one of the reasons he tapped longtime colleague Lenk for the part. When doing a one-man show — where daylong rehearsals include just the director, the actor and the stage manager — it’s important to enlist a performer who is not unpleasant to be around.
“I immediately thought of Tom,” said Stephenson, who directed the PPT’s production of “Noises Off” last season. “He’s easy to be with, he is dashingly handsome, and he is a great actor.”
To be out on stage, alone, for more than 90 minutes and to memorize every line of an entire script is no simple feat, and requires the skills of an accomplished artist. Lenk has appeared in numerous television shows and movies, but is best known for his work as Andrew in TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He also starred on Broadway in the musical “Rock of Ages,” and performs frequently at various comedy venues in Los Angeles, including the Comedy Central Stage.
Lenk has proven his versatility as Alex, Stephenson said. The script requires him not only to shift seamlessly from one character to another, but to transition in mood and tone throughout the show as well, which Lenk accomplishes through body, voice and facial changes.
“It’s so fun to do,” Lenk said. “It’s such a challenge. And I’ve never had to have this many words in my head.”
While it’s apparent in the play that playwright Tolins is a genuine Barbra fan, the Barbra in “Buyer and Cellar” is a character of quirks and foibles, observed Lenk, who noted a foible or two himself while reading “My Passion for Design.”
“She says in the book that she doesn’t have time for couture gown fittings anymore,” Lenk chuckled. “She says, ‘I have other priorities for my time.’ But she never says what those are.”
Lenk researched his role as Barbra by watching movies and YouTube interviews.
“I wasn’t a huge Barbra fan,” he explained. “I didn’t grow up in a Barbra-centric household. But it was fun learning about her. I think people who are Barbra fans will love this show. It celebrates her, but it also makes her very genuine.”
But even non-Barbra fans will appreciate the show, said Stephenson.
“It just works as a play,” he said.
The set is sparse — just a chair and a bench — but with the help of lighting, sound and the imagination of the audience, the details become clear.
“The great thing about the theater — and this show in particular — is the audience fills in what isn’t there,” Stephenson said.
“It is a comedy, but it has some meat on its bones,” Stephenson added.
“Buyer and Cellar” runs through June 28.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.