Friday, March 6, 2015

Notes from underground: Phoenix's 'Buyer and Cellar' zeroes in on one man's bristly brush with celebrity

Celebrities are what we have to remind us that money and fame aren't everything, but don't we wish we could realize that after obtaining money and fame? You know, because we would handle it so much better, wouldn't we?

That's why the vulnerabilities of famous people are as endearing as what we envy about them. Alex Moore, in Jonathan Tolins' "Buyer and Cellar," gets the whole package in landing a job as the sole employee in Barbra Streisand's fantasy shopping mall in the barn basement of her Malibu home.

It dawns on Alex why Streisand has him where she wants him.
He has to mind the little shops (one of them a "shoppe") that the singer-actress has set up and furnished, keeping everything tidy and dusted, all while wearing a twee uniform. It's a few steps up on the dignity scale from the costumed figure he formerly inhabited at Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, where working conditions earned it the nickname "Mousewitz" among long-suffering hirelings. The opportunity the struggling actor gets to apply his craft in the new job brings unimaginable benefits, despite indications that he's being bamboozled and exploited.

The most remarkable thing about Scot Greenwell's solo performance on opening night Thursday at the Phoenix Theatre is that the audience comes to feel Alex's vulnerability as the source of his strength of character. Under Charles Goad's direction, Greenwell projected the kind of heroism we yearn to encounter in ordinary life, hoping we don't miss the rare chance to rise to similar occasions ourselves.

We would have to infer this strength only from Tolins' clever script, were it not for Greenwell's skill at spookily embodying three supporting characters in the course of Alex's narrative: "the lady of the house," her longtime, cynical servant Sharon, and Alex's temperamental boyfriend Barry. (For lagniappe, there's also a little bit of hubby James Brolin and a soupcon of Oprah and Jimmy Stewart.)

The vividness of Greenwell's Streisand — stagy, caustic, shrewd, and surprisingly needy — builds
Scot Greenwell's Barbra makes a point with Alex.
our sympathy with his Alex. It makes plausible the fantasy Tolins' play develops out of Streisand's actual book, "My Passion for Design": that Alex's job depends upon his having a passion for design as well, in addition to the ability to improvise haggling scenarios with his boss when she drops into the doll shop as a customer.

When his eyes narrow, and the voice goes all Brooklyn/Hollywood, and his hands and arms describe arabesques that suddenly freeze for dramatic emphasis, Greenwell is every inch the queen of  domestic and entertainment realms alike.

Barry represents the dishy obsession of star-watchers, studious yet scornful.  Sometimes, unfortunately, nothing can be more pleasurable than expressing well-informed disdain for the better-off. It tends to mitigate private disappointments, of which Barry, an underemployed screenwriter, has plenty.

Alex's patience with the diatribes is limited, however, setting up trouble. When Greenwell moved toward the front of the stage to deliver Barry's withering judgments on Barbra tout ensemble and Alex's apparent credulity, he looked astonishingly like a different man. The lovers' spat, which generates Alex's climactic scene with Barbra, thereby became all the more credible.

Greenwell works his magic against a sympathetic backdrop. Laura Glover's lighting is warm and fanciful, Bernie Killian's set chastely well-appointed and allowing plenty of room for the imagination to run riot. Other technical aspects of the production also invite our minds to romp in these Streisandian fields of Elysium.

Only fitfully acquainted with Streisand's mulitfaceted career, I loved "Buyer and Cellar"'s ambivalence about celebrity and Alex's game engagement with it. It reminded me of watching the well-connected pour into the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when it opened in 1971.

As a cub arts reporter from Michigan, I was smitten with the august occasion and delighted to spot notables, though Washington cultural events offer a different order of stardom. I was standing with a crusty older journalist from another Michigan newspaper — a much smaller one, I might add. (When celebrities are the topic, don't we all become a little cattier? About everybody?)

"Well, they all put their pants on one leg at a time," he growled more than once, as though it was the height of wisdom, as I surveyed the crowd, calling out in stage whispers:  "There's Charlton Heston!" "There's Arthur Fiedler!" "And that's Henry Kissinger over there!"  His seen-it-all shield drooping momentarily, the senior reporter perked up each time. "Where? Where?," he would say as his interest approached mine.

Ever since, whenever I think of celebrities (not often),  I can't help visualizing them rising from bed in the morning and putting their pants on one leg at a time. But part of me wants to think they just sort of float into them — perhaps with little birds doing valet duty with each garment and accessory, like in Disney's Cinderella as she's getting ready for the ball, where everything will change for her.