The play Buyer & Cellar was inspired by a strange but true fact: Barbra Streisand has a shopping mall in her basement. Not a functioning mall, as such, but a series of faux Victorian shoppes built for the display of her various collections: dolls, clothes, tchotchkes. As inspiration, Streisand cites the Winterthur decorative arts museum in Delaware; Midwesterners might think of the House on the Rock.
It sounds delightfully weird, but Jonathan Tolins's 2013 play turns out to be — for better and for worse — a surprisingly conventional story about one man's journey toward self-acceptance. Directed by Wendy Knox, the piece is now being staged by the Hennepin Theatre Trust at the New Century Theatre.
Actor Sasha Andreev, with his conventional handsomeness (you may have seen him on HGTV), certainly looks the part he plays in this one-man show: Alex, an underemployed L.A. actor who takes a job as sole cast member in Barbra's basement. He's there to dust shelves, fold clothes, and, when needed, role-play as old-timey shopkeep with Streisand and her guests.
Andreev also plays roles including Streisand's majordomo Sharon, Alex's boyfriend Barry, and — stealing his own show — the Funny Girl herself, who appears one day to barter with Alex over the pretend purchase of her own possessions and gradually wraps the actor into a lopsided friendship that starts to take over his life.
The show opens somewhere dangerously close to camp: Andreev's performance is highly deliberate and uncannily precise as he affectedly reads from Streisand's coffee-table book My Passion for Design. Alex's gay mannerisms feel overplayed, and his boyfriend Barry's abrasive demeanor suggests a Harvey Fierstein jonesing for Nicorette. Is it fair to fault Andreev for not having any chemistry with himself?
The play is sturdily built, though, deploying telling details as Alex progresses from incredulity to epiphany. Tolins nicely elucidates the seductive nature of celebrity as well as the growing tension between Alex's real life and his surreal life. Buyer & Cellar's Streisand is oddly plausible: a woman who exhibits the kind of disarming familiarity you can easily summon when the person with whom you're becoming familiar is a paid actor on your own private Main Street.
Eventually, Andreev calms it down and wins us over. By the end, we empathize with Alex as he finds new perspective on his own identity as viewed through the windows of the subterranean fro-yo stand where Babs likes to rub her own soft-serve into the sprinkles. This production, though, takes a little too long to come down to Earth.
Overall, the show's patience is a strength — we really start to feel like we're in Streisand's alternate reality — but at 100 minutes, Buyer & Cellar could have used an intermission. As hard as the show works to hold our attention with just a single performer, sometimes people need people.