Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” which opened Buffalo United Artists’ 23rd season, is not your typical one-man show. A young actor named Alex More, played here by Kurt Erb, begins by warning us that he did not write this monologue. It is a piece of fiction, he tells us, and then tells us again, a fabrication of a whimsical imagination – all except for this one fact.
In honest-to-goodness real life, I kid you not, there exists a barn on the premises of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate, under which a windowless basement has been converted into a functional, walkable shopping mall. Here, Yentl herself can shop for an evening ensemble, or hostess gift for a dinner party. Or, if the mood strikes, she can chitchat with the help.
Alex is that employee, at least in Tolins’ fan fiction. He’s an unexpected punch line to Barbra’s too-crazy-to-be-believed lair. Wouldn’t it be nuts if this fantasy promenade were a real village, an oasis for one of the biggest stars on the planet, a public experience in a private compound. Is this the fame that struggling actor Alex wants, or thinks he deserves?
There are more layers in this riotous, intermissionless act than you’d think, given the format’s usual formula: funny guy kills with one-liners, makes us howl, sits down for a heart-to-heart, and reveals a soul beneath the laugh lines. We’re to believe that Streisand, arbiter of style – as inscribed in her giant coffee table book, “My Passion For Design” – is just a lonely Brooklyn girl, all grown up and scared to touch the real world. Tolins suggests a Barbra that’s far less Fanny Brice and much more Karen Walker. Be that as it may, it’s a fantasy within a fantasy that’s crazy enough to believe.
To occupy these meta layers, we need an interlocutor who’s willing to cut to the chase. Erb is up to the task. He must manage so much, like too many conversations with, perhaps, too many characters. Erb, a sardonically irreverent character actor who often gets pegged as either the sarcastic jerk or the sarcastic sweetheart, gets to cover a lot of territory here. Alex is at times a wry social commentator, and at others a lonely artist. Playing pretend with Babs offers the best of both worlds.
There are many things to like about Erb’s performance. He has no problem making us laugh, and breathes even more wit into Tolins’ cunning barbs; one-liners are his strongest suit. And he can land poignancy, too, with realistic rhythm. (You might get a whiff of David Sedaris.) It’s in the transitive banter between the peaks and valleys that he sounds too forced. Director Doug Weyand has created a conversational environment, though it rarely feels as cozy as a night on the couch. I watched Erb and saw shades of the effusive Man In Chair from “The Drowsy Chaperone,” another anxious fan at the center of some delicious fan fiction.
It’s always been my impression that the one-person show is the trickiest act in show business. You’re up there, all alone, maybe a piece or two of scenery, a table or chair, and nothing but your internal resources to get you through this gauntlet. Alex survives his alone time better than his boss can.
Erb gets through it without too many bruises; a number of flubbed lines were corrected on the spot, and a few of those derailed a good line’s momentum. Erb delivers the goods, though, make no mistake. I saw new techniques just in this performance; his growth from this daunting experience is bound to inform his coming roles. And his Barbra voice? Like buttah.
So is Tolins’s script. (He could trim 15 minutes and not lose sleep over it, however.) It’s a real original, refreshing amid the theater’s boring revivals these days. Here we have a fantasy punctured by the strangest of facts and the most universal of realities. As Alex ultimately learns, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a fabulous life. A great deal is just around the corner.
What: “Buyer & Cellar”
When: Through Oct. 4
Where: Main Street Cabaret at Alleyway Theatre Complex, 1 Curtain Up Alley
Tickets: $25 general, $23 seniors, $15 students
Info: 886-9239, buffalobua.org