In a world as meticulously fictional as Jonathan Tolins' Buyer & Cellar, it is not coincidental that our hero, Alex More, is fired from one of those weird acting gigs at Disneyland before landing an even weirder gig in Barbra Streisand's basement. Artistically speaking, it's foreshadowing. Personally speaking, it's symptomatic. Theatrically speaking, it's at Spirit Square through May 23, courtesy of Queen City Theatre Company.
Surrounded by a sea of wannabe Hollywood actors, Alex is one more actor aspiring to fulfill the impossible dream, willing to take a job inside a sweaty Disney costume or immured by himself for days in an ostentatious cellar — performing for an audience of one. Taking the abuse of bratty kids was the deal breaker for Alex at Disney, so what will happen at Barbra's underground mall when, after days of going so stir-crazy that he's conversing with Barbra's doll collection, the mistress of the manor actually shows up?
While Alex might have the dignity or self-delusion to think of himself as a working actor, we rightly wonder whether Barbra is any more likely than the bratty kid to see him in that light. Without knowing him that well, she may think of him as a mere menial employee. Or if she's completely full of herself and her starry significance, she may see Alex as simply another acquisition — another inventory item amid her underground antique, costume, candy, gift, and doll shops.
Since Buyer & Cellar is a one-man show, Alex can address us directly at the start as our narrator and reveal how Tolins came to write it. Apparently, the playwright actually met Barbra once and refused the icon's offer to share a Kit Kat bar for fear of the crumbs and mess. Regret had haunted him until he came across Streisand's coffee table book, My Passion for Design. That's where the underground mall is described as Barbra's alternative method of warehousing all her memorabilia, complimented by a popcorn maker and a yogurt machine to satisfy her snack cravings while communing with her possessions.
So, Alex can also explain — over and over again because of Barbra's famously litigious tendencies — that everything that follows is fiction before diving into the business of exploring the diva's soul and the soul of a struggling gay actor who comes to adore her. Like Merman and Garland were for previous generations, Streisand is a catnip to gay men of aphrodisiac potency. That's very much a part of the love-hate vibe permeating Buyer & Cellar as Alex gets to know Barbra better, becomes enchanted, and his jealous Jewish boyfriend Barry kibitzes from afar.
Joe Rux has previously chronicled the workaday woes of Crumpet, the out-of-work Right Coast actor in The Santaland Diaries, so it's not surprising how well he slips into Alex seven years later — or how easily he interacts with the audience. Morphing into an assortment of other folk — and out of direct contact with the house — Rux faces steeper challenges here.
In an eye-blink, Rux must become Barry, conversing or arguing back-and-forth with Alex. Or he's Alex's agent, sending him off to his latest non-opportunity. Or he's Sharon, Barbra's contemptuous house manager, sneering with every sentence. Or he's the macho James Brolin, the starry husband who wanders downstairs for the space of one delicious late-night snack.
Thankfully breaking his solemn promise not to impersonate her, Rux does Barbra far better than I'd hoped. Prefaced by a pursing of the lips and a wiping away of the hair — always with the wrong hand — the nasality, the cadences and the Brooklynese are all superb.
Under Glenn T. Griffin's direction, we get enough reclusive diva comedy so that we eagerly await Barbra's next appearance, but without the expectation that we'll be seeing a cartoon mockery. With the detailing of avid Barbra worship, we also get what seems to be a generous hint of Barbra herself.
Both Alex and Barbra have affinities for fantasylands. Alex works in a string of them in pursuit of an American dream, and Barbra, after achieving the American dream, is affluent enough to tuck a fantasyland into her own estate. So the core of Buyer & Cellar comes when the two main characters playact in the cellar — as buyer and seller. When she finally makes her entrance, Barbra pretends to be a customer, suddenly turning Alex into a pretend store clerk at Bee's Doll Shop, selling Barbra what already belongs to her.
Alex must make up a back-story for the doll off-the-cuff, establishing its high value and confirming his customer's discriminating taste. Then he must pretend to scan a stock list and come up with a price. Barbra gets into the playacting spirit by feigning a wholly different identity and haggling over the price. Negotiations stretch over multiple meetings, and they're both very good at it. Alex must have a quick-witted aptitude for the yarn-spinning career he has chosen, and Barbra's success in that fantasy realm is evidenced by every doll, dress, and antique surrounding them.
Of course, the stage isn't strewn with precious dolls, antiques and designer gowns. Rux conjures them all out of thin air with the generous help of our imaginations, while Kristian Wedolowski's set design mainly establishes a spare, inchoate stylishness. Yes, we are complicit in this whole fantasy dance, prodigally generous toward the Hollywood gods we worship and only mildly empathetic to the also-rans.
Yet we can coolly take ourselves out of the equation as we watch Barbra spending so much time with her playacting playmate. As employer and employee get acquainted, we're reminded that Barbra still wishes she were beautiful, no matter how wealthy she is.
Up until his most recent stage performance, headlining Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Billy Ensley has been turning the clock back, seeming to grow younger with each new musical role. Early in this uncanny phase of his career, Ensley rocked the role of Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar at CPCC in 2006. So, I was eager to discover how he would envision the grimmest of Gospel rock operas when he revisited it as director of the current Theatre Charlotte production.
From a financial standpoint, the show has already achieved success, filling the Queens Road barn on opening night. The sellout crowd clearly loved what they saw.
So did I. Josh Webb's set of symmetrically arranged platforms, combined with Gordon Olson's dramatically dim lighting design, evoked a decadent nightclub with vaguely Roman overtones in the draperies. If you can imagine the Holy Temple so degraded and prostituted, the concept works beautifully when the enraged Jesus purges the merchants and moneychangers from the premises. Jamey Varnadore's modernized costume designs vividly define the routed rabble, the offended clergy, and the hellish king.
What I heard — or often didn't hear of Tim Rice's lyrics — wasn't so pleasing. I most enjoyed the Whitney Houston gospel fire and sensuality that newcomer Tracie Frank applies to the usually limpid "I Don't Know How to Love Him," and Steve Bryan, sporting newly grown mustachios, brings showstopping zest to the king, getting maximum mileage from the wicked, wicked lyrics of "Herod's Song."
On the other hand, the Passover wine that Ensley has handed out to his stars seems to have convinced Joe McCourt as Jesus and Chris Chandler as Judas that Superstar is an everlastingly heavy metal musical. Both add high notes and anguished caterwauling to the score that sound apocryphal and quickly wear out their welcome. In Chandler's case, the vocal exploits do help to fortify Iscariot's conflicted evil when the arrogance of his manner falters. But while a heavy metal style chimes well with the decadent ambiance, Jesus should transcend the wickedness of his age, not surrender to it.
So in a show that stressed Jesus' humanity and revolutionary fire in 2006, McCourt often seems cold and distant by comparison, quick to anger. After all McCourt's vocal pyrotechnics, I was unmoved by his death.
Yet while he's alive, there's plenty to be upset about. The deep baritone of William Kirkland makes for a saturnine Caiaphus, combining effectively with Arch LeGrone as Annas in the conspiratorial "This Jesus Must Die," and J. Michael Beech is haunted enough to make "Pilate's Dream" nightmarish. Aside from Mary M, Jason Barney as Simon is the worthiest of Christ's followers.