The story of Buyer & Cellar is a work of fiction, its narrator assures us right off the bat, but its bizarre central premise is true: Barbra Streisand designed and built a period 19th-century shopping mall in her Malibu basement. Buyer & Cellar proceeds from playwright Jonathan Tolins’s improbable thought experiment: What if Barbra hired someone to “run” the “shops”?
That someone is Alex, a snarky underemployed actor. The pricelessly funny Dustin Tucker plays him — and Barbra, and several other people — in Portland Stage Company’s confection of a one-man show, directed by Kate Galvin.
The stage is set with Meg Anderson’s pale, gorgeously designed “mall”: a tall façade of shop-front surfaces and signs — a “Gift Shoppe,” “Bee’s Doll Shop,” a “Dress Shop” — and, mid-stage, a clean-lined upholstered sofa and writing desk. Everything, including the stage floor, is a cool ivory (a color Alex calls “putty-linen”) and it makes a lovely canvas for Andrew Hungerford’s lighting as it shifts with the mood. Barbra has spent time and unimaginable money on getting every detail perfect down here, and just watch the doors of Anderson’s putty-linen set open to reveal glistening rainbow hues of candy, ribbons, and dresses. Barbra expects the same perfection of the man hired to play the salesman of all this. “It’s about making it feel real,” admonishes Streisand’s assistant. “Truth is very important to her.”
“Truth” in La-La Land? The show is also very much an homage to and jabs at L.A. — its illusions, its realities, and those drawn to make it there. Alex’s patter is riddled with rent-paying gigs at Banana Republic and Disneyland, snarky analyses of Judy Garland, Little Fockers, and tinsel-y little grace notes (“The trees glistened like sequins on Liza Minelli”).
Tucker, long beloved in this town for his physically agile, antically giddy comedy, is a treat to watch doing almost anything, and he’s especially the man for shows with myriad character quick-changes. He does Barbra, her imperious British personal assistant, and an amazing James Brolin (Barbra’s current husband), giving him a thick, masculine voice and square-jawed smile; he goes maybe a little over the cliché mountain with Alex’s nasal, tetchy Jewish boyfriend Barry. But he’s pitch perfect in navigating Alex’s cocktail of incredulity, skepticism, and wonder, plus several fixes of the quintessential Tucker grin — that of a giddily evil nine-year old.
And how is his Babs? Early on, Alex makes a point to assure that he’s not going to “do” Barbra, but rather “be” her — an astute distinction, and if anybody could pull this off, it’s Tucker. His Barbra is coy, slinky, grand, and insecure, and gives her a range of tenderly particular tics: a heaving, open-mouthed laugh, little sweeping circles she makes with her hands, her tendency to splay the scarf across her like a cape. “More!” she says, clapping her finger-splayed hands, as he makes her a frozen yogurt.
Tucker channels a real entity in his Barbra, whose pathos deepens as she talks about success, weight, and conventional beauty, about how her only doll, growing up in the projects, was a hot water bottle in a knitted sweater. The portrait is at once grotesque and homage, Tucker draws her with both a keen, droll eye and — improbably — uncommon compassion. Pathos? Compassion? Barbra Streisand? Yes, and does Tucker ever run with it. “It just goes to show,” a theater companion was heard to exclaim, “that you can make a play about anything.”
Buyer & Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Kate Galvin. Produced by Portland Stage Company | Through March 26 | $32-48 ($15 day of show tickets for 35 and under) | www.portlandstage.org