LTW Offers a Generous Dose of Sweetness and Surprise in Buyer & Cellar

For those who may have welcomed 2017 with not a large dose of cheerful anticipation, get thee to Live Theatre Workshop's production of Buyer and Cellar, a very funny—and very well done—one-man script about the shopping mall underneath one of the buildings on Barbra Streisand's compound in Malibu. 

Yes. You read correctly. An underground shopping mall. On Streisand's compound. Complete with a dress shoppe holding her collection of gowns and costumes from her movies and shows and other events; an antique shoppe decked out with only the finest wares; a doll shoppe with exquisite representations of a real hobbyist's dream. And, let's not forget, a yogurt machine and a commercial popcorn popper. And, of course, a manager who runs the whole thing. But no, this mall is not open to the public. It exists for the entertainment and diversion of The Lady herself.
This is playwright Jonathan Tolins' story of Alex More, an actor, as evidenced by his portrayal of the mayor of Toontown at Disneyland, who got the boot for some unsavory, stress-related behavior. But somehow he impresses the Young Frankenstein-Cloris Leachman-like dominatrix compound manager, Sharon, a humorless troll, according to Alex, that he would be perfect for this particular role as manager of a private mall on Barbra Streisand's private compound.

And he is. It's a pretty lonely job, though, since the Lady Herself rarely comes to the shop-pes, as Alex playfully pronounces it.

But this is not really a story of Alex's loneliness, except as it relates to the time that he has to make observations about numerous things in his mall-managing role. It's a story of a funny, real guy and his rather peculiar interaction with a movie star and music legend. His tale includes his boyfriend who knows way more about Barbra than Alex does. His story also presents us with a poignant suggestion of how not only eccentric, but lonely and isolated the Great Lady might actually be.

Embodying Alex is actor Keith Wick, who without question is one of the best actors in Tucson. He's been a regular at Live Theatre Workshop for years, and he impresses with every role. This role requires an uber-capable journeyman, and Wick, although his performance opening night was not quite at what will be its apex, is just the man.

The qualities required for this role are plentiful in a performer like Wick, whose work always is grounded in skill as well as talent. This is an enormous undertaking. The role requires being able not just to hold our attention for almost an hour and 45 minutes, but infusing that attention with humor and insight and a welcoming persona. It requires someone who's not snarky or prone to mean-spiritedness but one with an ability to make light where it needs to be. It requires a believable character, one never cruel or unkind, especially because of the subject.  

The joke about gay men and Barbra Streisand absolutely has its basis in fact. But Wick never relies on the stereotypical extremes of a campy hysterical-about-Barbra gay-ness. There is no flaming here, except in brief moments when he's either being self-effacing or gently ridiculing those who might tend to flame, like his boyfriend. Our laughs are never cheaply bought, nor do they rely on humor at the expense of others.

Also to be admired is that Wick's Alex never "does" Barbra, in the manner of drag queens; rather, he finds a simple but effective reading of Barbra as he recounts his conversations with her, and finds a similarly simple imitative suggestion of his boyfriend when he recounts those conversations.

Opening night, there were moments when we could sense Wick's wheels turning, and that, of course creates a momentary shadow of the character and not the full thing. There are also moments when Wick seems hurried, and that can seem like a lack of trust or groundedness. But he always finds his way, and I absolutely trust that as he performs the role more times with an actual audience, he will find more secure footing, and we will be able to see Alex as fully as Wick already knows him.

One also might quibble that Wick is just a tad south of the perfect age for More, and because there is a critical point in the proceedings that concerns the character's hair, it's a little odd that Wick doesn't have much of the stuff.

Sabian Trout directs and Richard Gremel's set is serviceable. A projection screen is absolutely necessary so that we see pictures from Streisand's 2010 book, My Passion for Design, which are critical to the storytelling. That screen is also serviceable, but really needs to be bigger.

Both Tolins and Wick charm us and dare us not to laugh out loud, and we always succumb. There is sweetness, surprise and delight as we are lead through the minor but telling adventures of More and the mall. These are qualities we may be a bit short of these days. LTW offers a generous dose.

Buyer and Cellar
Presented by Live Theatre Workshop
7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 11
5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes