In 1993, while meeting with playwright Jonathan Tolins to discuss the film rights to Twilight of the Golds, Barbra Streisand offered him a bit of her Kit Kat bar. He passed on the candy and she passed on the play. But 20 years later he has helped himself to a Big Hunk of Barbra's persona, making it the celebrity center of Buyer & Cellar, a hit comedy now in its West Coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum (through August 17).
The inspiration came in 2010, with the publication of My Passion for Design, Barbra's vainglorious 2010 coffee-table-book look into her Malibu San Simeon à la Streisand. Written first as an essay it was expanded into a one-man fantasia for theater. Stephen Brackett directs Michael Urie ("Ugly Betty," SCR's Hamlet) in a showcase performance that will surely remain bolted to the top of his permanent record. The 100-minute one-act is simply one of the funniest theater events in years.
Buyer & Cellar is adamantly not biography. In the opening scene, when Urie is still Urie, he disclaims accuracy. "None of this happened," he insists, at once an acknowledgment of the author's creativity and the legal team's jitters. We do get a caricature of Streisand, certainly. Living this large does half the satirists' work for them. But the joke is just as much on us, a public with an unhealthy obsession with over-the-top lifestyles. That is why Buyer & Cellar succeeds as theater, while so many recent one-person shows with a celebrity subject, star, or both, do not.
What is real is this, Urie says as he holds up a copy of the book. He leafs through until he reaches what is a gold mine, both for the home and the play. It is a subterranean shopping village inspired by the Winterthur decorative-arts museum in Delaware. As Streisand told a reporter during her 2010 book tour, "Seeing Winterthur's indoor street, I thought how ingenious that was. Instead of just storing my things in the basement, I can make a street of shops and display them."
Urie then imperceptibly slips into the character of struggling actor Alex More. His life is a Jetta-powered merry-go-round of theater auditions, stints as Disneyland characters, and time with boyfriend Barry. A mysterious job opportunity leads him to Malibu where, after signing a robust confidentiality agreement, he becomes custodian of Casa Barbra's bizarre basement emporium.
At first the days slog by. Alex only interacts with Sharon, the property's gruff major domo. He dusts the countless shelves of dolls and antiques and bric-a-brac, sharing his experiences with Barry, who as both more in awe of Barbra and more prone to discredit her, is the distillation of our celebrity fickleness. When the owner finally does show up, a strange dance begins. She establishes supremacy and then fosters a transactional relationship in which Alex finds himself the basement shopkeeper, compelled to randomly price items Streisand, calling herself Sadie, inquires about. Alex's Groundlings training gives him the think-on-your-feet improv skills to stand firm when Sadie haggles over a French doll. How she finally wins the negotiation is a surreal highlight.
Tolins sets the play in 2010 when the book was coming out, and the press tour takes her away for a week. Their odd friendship grows until it gets too close and Alex is let go. But not before he glimpses the little girl stored inside the icon. He listens to recollections of her impoverished childhood in Brooklyn and sees the most precious item is the rubber hot-water bottle that served as her doll. It's her Rosebud.
Urie combines a stand-up's timing and energy with the hypnotic gestures of an illusionist. His Alex is comic confessor, our willing emissary inside a fortress of fame we will never scale. Streisand's home may be just up PCH, but her world is across a gulf as wide as Gatsby's "courtesy bay," across which the "wingless" are lucky just to watch the wealthy.
Andrew Boyce's simple set is a shallow alcove of wall that serves as screen for a couple animated projections by Alex Koch, as well as his simple line-rendering graphics that indicate shelves and cabinets. Jessica Pabst created Alex's casual costume, Eric Southern designed lights, and Stowe Nelson provides the sound that hints at some Streisand hits.
BUYER & CELLAR
by JONATHAN TOLINS
directed by STEPHEN BRACKETT
MARK TAPER FORUM
July 9-August 17, 2014
(Opened, Rev’d 7/13)
CAST Michael Urie
PRODUCTION Andrew Boyce, set; Jessica Pabst, costumes; Eric Southern, lights; Stowe Nelson, sound; Alex Koch, video projection; Michael T. Clarkston/Hannah Woodward, stage management
HISTORY 'Buyer & Cellar premiered at Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre.World Premiere
Hitting 'The Heights'
Lin-Manuel Miranda helped move contemporary music into mainstream theater with his 2008 Tony-winning In The Heights and Chance Theater has brought it to Orange County in a winning production that quickly extended through August 10. But Miranda's book and lyrics, with their occasional nods to rap and hip hop, are just as comfortable with conventional styles that blend in what is ultimately a familiar tale of growing up in America.
Chance Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen's staging shows the flexibility of the new flexible space in Anaheim Hills. The theater is unrecognizable from the previous Passion Play [REVIEW]. The large ensemble cast of mostly young and/or resumé-building actors are anchored by the excellent Joshua Lopez in the central role of Usnavi de la Vega, which Miranda originated in New York. There are strong voices throughout, especially where they are needed most, in Julia Cassandra Smith as Nina, Chelsea Baldree as Vanessa, and Charles McCoy as Benny.
High energy more than makes up for any deficit of deep experience, though a couple of big skips in Quiara Alegria Hudes' book might be lessened by veterans able to wordlessly fill in gaps the script has created. The romance between Nina and Benny, which spring more out of plot demands than their behavior, is an example. But such creaky plot crankers are easily forgiven with a cast so invigorated by their power to create theatrical excitement.
Performer pride is one of several "heights" Miranda's musical hits at the Chance, with the main meaning being the abbreviation of Washington Heights in northern Manhattan. Here is where Usnavi's De la Vega Bodega provides the coffee and conversation that stirs the daily interactions of the tightknit community around an uptown intersection.
The locals include Abuela Claudia (Candida Orosco), a gentle matron who is an aging symbol of continuity in a changing world. She raised Usnavi and his cousin, Sonny (Rubén J. Carbajal), who works in the bodega and helps his shy cousin in approaching Vanessa, who is one of two salon stylists, with Carla (Angeline Mirenda), employed by Daniela (Sonja Taylor). Kevin and Camila Rosario (Tony Sanchez and Rachel Oliveros Catalano) are Nina's parents and the owners of the successful Car Service where Benny works. The other corner regulars are shaved ice seller Piragua Guy (Julio Arroyo) and Graffiti Pete (Izzy Perez).
The "heights" are also that precarious emotional state where love or success take us. In their way, every character either wants to have this or hold onto it. Nina's course is the central rise and fall, and some of the jaggedness is in the play's shortcuts. Nevertheless, Smith is enormously appealing, packing vocal power into her petite frame.
It is the July 4th weekend and after Nina's first year on scholarship to Stanford, she returns on an updraft of neighborhood pride that she must quickly pop. She lost the scholarship and has not been attending class for several months. The high energy needed for the holiday celebrations overtaxes the grid, and a power failure plummets the neighborhood into darkness just as Vanessa and Usnavi have their first date, and Nina and Benny get together.
The individual stories are little more than a tangle of loose ends that tie together the love stories, Nina's rift and reconnection with her folks, Kevin's dismissal of Benny, and the passing of Abuela Claudia. And yet, Nguyen's well-paced staging, and Musical Director Robyn Wallace's unseen orchestra, fuel a worthy production. With Lopez' ability to fire off Miranda's rap lyrics, his sensitivity with Usnavi's various neighborhood roles, and the sizzle the energized ensemble give every number it serves as a great introduction to Miranda's musical.
In addition to Wallace, Bradley Kaye packs the stage with colorful set lit by Martha Carter, and Kelly Todd does her part to pack plenty of movement into the intimate space. She is assisted by Christopher M. Albrecht. Costumes are by Christina Marie Perez and sound design is by Ryan Brodkin.
IN THE HEIGHTS
music and lyrics by LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
book by QUIARA ALEGRIA HUDES
musical direction by ROBYN WALLACE
choreographed by KELLY TODD
directed by OANH NGUYAN
July 3-August 10, 2014
(Opened, Rev’d 7/12)
CAST Julio Arroyo, Chelsea Baldree, Rubén Carbajal, Rachel Oliveros Catalano, Joshua Lopez, Charles McCoy, Angeline Mirenda, Candida Orosco, Izzy Perez, Tony Sanchez, Julia Cassandra Smith, and Sonja Taylor, with Jonna K. Ahn, Fabio Antonio, Wesley Barnes, Stephanie Inglese, Bryan A. Martinez, Celina Nguyen, Monika Peña, Sarah Pierce, Nohely Quiroz, u/s Andrew Puente
Musicians –Robyn Wallace (Keyboards), Brian Cross (guitar), Adolfo Kushelevich (bass), Saul Reynoso and Tim Mathiesen (trumpet), Nolan Delmer (trombone), Jeffrey Segal (percussion), Jorge Zuniga (drums)
PRODUCTION Bradley Kaye, set; Christina Marie Perez, costumes; Martha Carter, lights; Ryan Brodkin, sound; Cynthia DeCure, dialects; Courtny Greenough, stage management
Izzy Perez, Charles McCoy, Joshua Lopez, Fabio Antonio, Ruben Carbajal, Stephanie Inglese and Monika Pena
The deep end
The opening scene of Sunset Blvd. came to mind while watching Penelope by Enda Walsh, now in an extended L.A. premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre (through August 17). In the 1950 film we meet a writer floating in the swimming pool of a lonely former star. In the play, the swimming pool, belonging to the lonely wife of the missing Odysseus, is empty. Over the 90 minutes it will be filled not with water but with words – sufficient and surprising enough to float Mr. Walsh to the top of contemporary dramatists.
Many have already discovered Walsh, either through his Tony Award-winning book for the stage adaptation of the film Once or his The New Electric Ballroom, staged at UCLA by the Druid Theater in 2009 and at Rogue Machine in a revival three years later.
Hearing Walsh for the first time is thrilling. Credit an outstanding cast of five, directed as was Ballroom by Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn, with letting the language flow forth like a bracing blast from an open hydrant. Play and production are the rare event that serious theatergoers long for, one that could forever engage the uninitiated and permanently recall the disenfranchised.
Walsh stands as a modern addition to the great tradition of Irish writers. His language has the color and resonance of rich voices from Shaw and Joyce to Beckett and Murphy, yet is wholly original. That stylistic duality is paralleled in the play itself, which while borne in the mythos of Homer's classic Odyssey, maintains ties to the original yet becomes a modern look at contemporary mortal man.
As Stoppard did by pushing two of Hamlet's minor characters to the fore in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Walsh creates a quartet of would-be suitors from more than 100 who, according to Homer, dotted Odysseus' land like scavenger birds while he was away. They devoured his crops and livestock, waiting out Penelope's 20-year vigil for the husband who had left for the Trojan War 20 years before. While the soldiers now squatting on his lawn and vying for his wife's hand had been back a decade, it had already taken him another ten years to navigate the series of obstacles the Gods had put in his path.
In the original, Odysseus arrived to find nearly all the suitors remaining, and proceeded to slaughter them with the help of his son. Walsh's final four (a fifth's suicide the day before left a telltale bloodstain on the side of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz' pool set) have had a shared dream that Odysseus will soon arrive. While it's hard to believe these four had the cunning or strength to outlast about 100 other men, Walsh has other uses for them. They provide a fascinating mosaic of male foibles.
Though Homer named his legions of suitors, these four have different, Irish names: Quinn (Brian Letscher), Fitz (Richard Fancy), Burns (Scott Sheldon), and Dunne (Rob Bottitta). During the play, they will alternately belittle and befriend one another in shifting alignment, and each will make a last appeal for the hand of Penelope (Holly Fulger) over the closed circuit television she watches from a draped-off room above and behind the pool.
The actors are excellent. Bottitta, whose perfect face for the role could only have come from the unholy union of Sirs Michael Gambon and Peter Hall, represents the artistic man. He is a magnificent egoist, as skilled in his bitter gibing as he is at delivering his verse. His appeal to Penelope is Walsh's opportunity for even greater flourishes. Fancy manages to make Fitz both flustered and grounded, perhaps the infirmed man, humbled by a stammer and perhaps mentally challenged, he is still a powerful presence. while Letscher is the alpha male, something like Peter Quince among Shakespeare's mechanicals. Sheldon's Burns is the acquiescent member in the group, a facilitator who is now mistaken for a servant.
We are not in ancient Greece. A Lexus is mentioned as is Jesus Christ. The Greek meander pattern in the tile edging of Schwartz' pool, and the diaphanous dress Lauren Tyler has designed for Penelope, are the only visible connections to Ancient Greece. This is a modern backyard, and yet there is a propane barbeque with oracular properties. Chris Moscatiello's sound is doo wop, and there is a little Tijuana Brass thrown in to add to the absurdity of some of the men's presentations.
Rarely is something confusing, and when it is, it is intriguing rather than indecipherable. The overall effect is to be awash in something born in the 21st Century but suited to any previous era, too.
As the men use their waning moments to salute Penelope, I also do Holly Fulger, who has not a word in this amazing talkfest. It is not Walsh's intent to underscore that women have stoicly bit their tongues while men follied at war or fumbled at lovemaking. Her silent presence secures her as the venerated, unattainable dream woman who inspires unrealistic devotion without every intending it. Still, no actor really wants to spend 90 minutes onstage without participating in the dialogue. So, a graphite tip of the hat to Ms. Fulger for her heroic contribution. And, for that matter, to the centuries of tongue-biters who bore us.
by ENDA WALSH
directed by JOHN PERRIN FLYNN
ROGUE MACHINE THEATER
June 9-August 10, 2014
(Opened 6/14, Rev’d 8/3m)
CAST Ron Bottitta, Richard Fancy, Holly Fulger, Brian Letscher, Scott Sheldon
PRODUCTION Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, set; Lauren Tyler, costumes; Ric Zimmerman, lights; Chris Moscatiello, sound; Corwin Evans, video; Ramón Valdez, stage management
HISTORY Premiered at Druid Lane Theatre in Galway, Ireland, in July 2010, and toured to Finland, Edinburgh, and New York that year. Los Angeles Premiere