If you’re as successful and famous and rich as Barbra Streisand has been for decades, chances are you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff. Especially so if your origin story involves a poverty-ridden childhood in Brooklyn.
Well, according to Miss Streisand’s 2010 book “My Passion for Design,” for which she created not only the text but also the photographs, her solution was to turn the basement of her luxurious Malibu home into a sort of Disneyland dreamscape of horse-and-buggy Americana, a clutch of little shops – dolls, clothing, gifts, antiques, sweets – featuring her stuff.
There probably are many guests around who have toured this fantasyland but none who have had much to say about it publically. Not if they want to be invited back.
That coffee-table book, however, is in the public domain. And it caught the attention of a playwright, Jonathan Tolins, who fell into a gay-icon dream.
Tolins is the author of a very underrated play, Twilight of the Golds, which muses savagely on the result of experimental biological tests that would allow detection, in a wombed fetus, of something like a “gay gene,” thus giving parents an option while an abortion is still possible. It’s a chilling thesis and Tolins, while he may not have made the most of it, certainly created some haunting specters.
Barbra Streisand’s playroom is several degrees of seriousness less but definitely a lot more fun. Tolins has turned it into a one-guy play, Buyer & Cellar now at the Old Globe, in which takes the form of a Hollywood fringe nebbish telling a fascinating story about his brush with greatness.
Tolins is at great pains to remind the audience that this little play is entirely a work of fiction, based on the few crumbs of information strewn by the “famous, talented, and litigious” star who, as far as he knows, has never seen the play since it opened off-off-Broadway two years ago.
Instead of journalism, he emphasizes, this is an imaginary story being told by an imaginary person who held the imaginary position of clerk, complete with silk arm garters and leather apron by Donna Karan, in a droll mall with one customer.
Tolins has met Streisand only once. She offered him a piece of her Kit Kat bar but he was too overwhelmed to accept. That makes it into the play, along with a generally positive if not quite adoring depiction of a gay icon.
The narrator does all the characters, but by suggestion rather than imitation. The Globe production is thankfully uncluttered with reality, though dense with the detritus of imagination. This allows the narration to be quick, nimble, evocative and involving, just as we’d all like our stories to seem.
Credit Ron Lagomarsino for his deft but telling touch with the staging, on a minimal Erik Flatmo set that manages to be both dreamy and rigid. Philip S. Rosenberg does subtle magic with the lighting, evoking not only locale but also mood. The music? About what you’d expect in a vision of Barbra, thanks to Lindsay Jones.
The show belongs, of course, to David Turner, playing all of Tolin’s notions with endearing charm. His snark never seems to wound, his wistful asides are timed precisely and his every ingratiating twitch is that of the marginally hopeless.
Fired at Disneyland (“Mouse-schwitz”) for scuffling with an 8-year-old customer, he gets a call from some guy in human resources who has the hots for him, tipping him to this mysterious gig in Malibu. He’s supposed to show up and do what he’s told, without question. But he’ll only sign the thick confidentiality documents after he’s told the boss is named “Barbra.”
Five days a week, he’s in the windowless, clockless cellar, listening to the whirr of the frozen yoghurt machine, dusting a bit and waiting for customers. Or customer. He’s part of the exhibit, the part that gets overtime.
There is a mercurial charm to these encounters, and both contribute, but they can’t last forever. Her fantasy is too fragile. He can suspend his competitive cool but not his sense of self. There’s just too much reality out there.
Continuing at the Old Globe’s White Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May10, 2015.