Though Thalian Hall’s main stage currently is able to hold a cast of at least 50, upstairs in the Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre, one young man, Tyler Crittenden, entertains with “Buyer and Cellar.” Written by Jonathan Tolins, “Buyer and Cellar” opened Off-Broadway in 2013. Entirely fiction, it is inspired by a book that Barbra Streisand published in 2010 about her attempts to design and construct the perfect abode. Apparently, underneath her Malibu home she built a faux shopping complex to house her collections of dresses, accessories, collectibles, knick-knacks and jewelry.
Tolins imagines a world where a young, struggling actor, Alex More (Crittenden), gets hired to manage the mall beneath Streisand’s home. Seriously. He gets paid to dust, clean, make displays, and wait on one and only one customer. Will she ever appear? Or is Alex destined to spend his days surrounded by dolls and the whirl of the frozen yogurt-machine? Yes, she has a frozen-yogurt stand, complete with sprinkles in her private shopping mall because she can.
As fate and employment would have it, Alex does get to wait on Streisand in her private mall. Nothing has quite prepared him for the experience or what is going to be expected of him. But in all fairness, what could?
The writing of “Buyer and Cellar” is incredibly witty and surprising partly because Tolins shows the story through the lens of an inexperienced young man. It takes Alex a while to tumble to the events around him—his process of starting the journey we are following. Meeting Streisand is only the veneer.
Anyone who takes on the challenge of a one-person show has my admiration. It is an incredible amount of work to pull off with no safety net. Crittenden’s team includes its director, Shane Fernando, and producer, Tony Rivenbark, who have set him up for success. Crittenden introduces us to the great Babs herself, but also his boyfriend—the frustrated aspiring screenwriter, Barry. Like Streisand, Barry escaped from Brooklyn to the land of the great golden West. Though, by far, my favorite recurring character is a jaded caretaker of the estate. Crittenden’s voice for her convinces us she has been a chainsmoker most of her life. She is just so acerbic as to she is endearing.
He isn’t a mimic, per se. So when he gives us Streisand or James Brolin, Crittenden shows enough similarity in the way a storyteller would recreate them. The point is not to obsessively recreate James Brolin onstage. We are getting the sense of a young man recounting a story to us, which is exactly what it should be.
Many Wilmingtonians are familiar with “Santaland Diaries,” in which an aging man recounts his worst employment experience ever. “Buyer and Cellar” is the inverse: a young man with the world in front of him telling us a story about the pinnacle of his life—which, frankly, up to now hasn’t had anything nearly this exciting to recommend.
Within Crittenden’s toolbox as an actor is a remarkable ability to make excitement, surprise and wonder permeate his being. He presents More like he’s back home visiting his parents and catching up with high-school friends, recounting his craziest of adventures trying to make it as an actor in LA. Crittenden manages to imbue it with a sense of wonder and excitement but also desperation of being young, broke and far from home. The adult thing is starting to really set in—and he has to start making decisions about how he is going to go through the world. When things go badly with Barry, his despondency is palpable.
A lot of the script does focus on the twin sides of the celebrity coin: lauding, praising and cataloging accomplishments, contrasted against the jealousy disparaging their flaws. Cynicism about their strife, struggles and disappointments permeates. Where is the humanity within celebrity? Are More and Babs actually becoming friends? Are they sharing the excitement of creating together? Or is More genuinely just a very disposable member of the “staff”? Or is all of it just one seriously misunderstood delusion of More’s?
Tolins has created a very funny script, which manages to follow a plot arc with twists, turns and surprises. Crittenden imbues a sense of surprise that doesn’t telegraph the ending or ruin the jokes. He creates a sense of discovery for the audience and himself, which makes the show so much fun to watch.