By turns sweet, affecting and uproariously funny, Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man show starring Jeremy Webb, may be one of the most memorable Jewish-themed plays ever. Then again, consider the source material: The play was inspired by Barbra Streisand’s humongous coffee table book “My Passion for Design,” a comprehensive catalogue of thousands of items of memorabilia accumulated through her six decades as the quintessential American-Jewish entertainer.
The audacious concept of “Buyer & Cellar” envisions a vast underground mall in which Streisand stores her treasure trove of dresses from her movies and plays, tchochkes she has picked up impulsively on her worldwide travels, expensive jewelry and a doll collection so vast that it might have made Barbie blush with envy.
Webb plays Alex More, an underemployed Los Angeles actor who finds work as curator of the underground collection. It’s a fascinating yet spooky job, with the tomblike silence of the space only relieved by the whirring of a frozen yogurt churn and popcorn maker.
Alex must keep company with himself at first, but then has the dreamlike experience of interacting with Barbra in all of her neurotic, compulsive, perfectionist and ingenious incarnations.
The play is extra noteworthy because it avoids campy satires of Streisand. Webb’s Alex, in a prefatory sequence, makes it clear that he does not “do” Streisand — he doesn’t don wigs or appear in drag. Alex’s respect for Streisand is as sincere as that of Linda Richman, the Mike Myers character on “Saturday Night Live” who unconditionally adores the superstar and whose voice sounds like “buttah” whenever she sings.
Far from being a spoof of Streisand, “Buyer & Cellar” is an homage to the enduring contributions to show business — and to the specifically Jewish role in that business — for which Streisand is solely responsible.
Among the many monologues Alex shares with the audience in this 90-minute play, which is performed without intermission, is one in which he makes it clear that Barbra, despite all of her successes, has always remained the poor, homely Jewish girl whose stepfather would not let her have ice cream because he said she was “too ugly.” Nonetheless, she adamantly refused to change either her birth name or her birth nose, telling people who objected to a Jewish performer that they did not have to patronize her recordings, concerts, films or Broadway musicals.
In addition to his interactions with Streisand, Alex also plays his offstage Jewish boyfriend, Barry, whose curiosity about Streisand moves toward jealousy of Alex’s attraction to her, as well as Streisand’s real-life husband, James Brolin, and her housekeeper.
If you are a Streisand fan (and who among us isn’t?) “Buyer & Cellar” is a double treat. Not only is the play itself highly amusing and satisfying, it also contains enough Streisand trivia to satisfy an entire season of questions on “Jeopardy.”
Alex reminds us, in excruciatingly hilarious detail, that Lauren Bacall played Streisand’s mother in “The Mirror Has Two Faces” and that Karl Malden played her father in “Nuts.” References also are sprinkled in to “The Way We Were,” “Yentl,” “Funny Girl” and “The Prince of Tides,” to name just a few.
“Buyer & Cellar” is like a multicourse meal that you don’t want to end. Playwright Tolins deserves praise for bringing this thoroughly original concept to the theater, Webb nails an incredibly demanding role, and director Wendy Dann makes it memorable by keeping the action moving at a rapid-fire pace.
What a terrific way for the Rep to conclude its 2014-2015 Studio Series.
WHEN: Run extended through April 5; 7 p.m. Tuesday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: Emerson Studio Theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road, Webster University Campus
HOW MUCH: $50-65
MORE INFO: 314-968-4925 or repstl.org.