Review: ‘Buyer & Cellar’ sells the goods

Imagine getting the opportunity to work for your favorite celebrity. Now imagine you and that celebrity becoming fast friends.

In Buyer and Cellar, the celebrity happens to be the iconic Barbra Streisand. Now running at Farmers Alley Theatre, playwright Jonathan Tolins’ one-man show blends wish fulfillment and celebrity portraiture into a surprisingly-touching love letter to an artist and her legacy.

Just to be clear, Buyer and Cellar is not biographical. It’s a work of fiction inspired by the real superstar Streisand. As Alex More — played by a chameleonic Lee Slobotkin — explains at the beginning of the show, Streisand’s mini-mall of memorabilia in her Malibu estate is real. His character and subsequent meeting and employment at that mall, however, are fake.

Fortunately, the characters and story still feel very real thanks to writer Tolins being a pop-culture junkie with a big heart. The authenticity of each of the characters Slobotkin plays is a testament to him as an actor, but the underlying script gives each one a unique voice and perspective.

Alex is the primary character — a gay man and struggling actor living in Los Angeles. His boyfriend, Bobby, is a sharp-tongued cynic who analyzes Alex’s every encounter. Meanwhile, Streisand as Alex’s boss is an insecure enigma. Played by Slobotkin with a hint of a Brooklyn accent and a flick of the wrist, this Streisand is a character to fall in love with.

The strength of Tolin’s script is its self-contained subtlety. This is not farce or a cruel caricature of Streisand, nor is it puffy idol worship. This Streisand is a fully dimensional person and the script provides plenty of backstory on this larger-than-life, EGOT-winning star. While the story references a few of Streisand’s films, it’s more focused on her eccentricities as a person. Of course, if you are a Streisand fan, there are plenty of gems hidden in the dialogue.

The best scenes then in Buyer and Cellar are Alex’s interactions with Streisand, like when she first meets Alex by pretending to be a customer browsing and haggling over items in her own mall. Slobotkin seamlessly shifts from voice to voice and body to body, until at times you swear you are seeing two people on stage. He also contains an infectious energy that he patiently doles out through the show. Apart from some brief moments near the end, Slobotkin keeps the 90-minute show moving at a steady pace.

Slobotkin may be the only actor onstage, but he’s not alone. Lighting designer Samantha A. Snow and sound designer Garrett Gagnon provide spot on cues helping to complete the illusion of characters walking in and out of the shop. And director Adam Weiner makes full use of the stage, allowing the audience to fill the details of the simple set.

As a script, Buyer and Cellar provides more steady chuckles than big laughs. All good things come to an end, and the reason for Alex’s dismissal from Streisand’s employ is especially fun. Fortunately, Tolins refrains from laying out sentimental messages. The show instead takes you on a tour and the experience is worth the price.

Buyer & Cellar
Farmer’s Alley Theatre
798 Oakland Dr., Kalamazoo
Through Mar. 19
7:30 pm Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
$25 Thursdays, $30 Friday-Sunday, (269) 343-2727