by Michael “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
One man shows are notoriously difficult. There are very few one man shows that are captivating and engaging. “Buyer and Cellar” comes close to hitting the high mark; set astonishingly high in the very same theatrical space by Teagle F. Bougere in last year’s “An Iliad.”
The success of “Buyer and Cellar” is mostly due to its star, Tom Lenk (finally overcoming his pigeonholed status as the ne’er-do-well-nerd-seeking-redemption on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”). In “Buyer,” Lenk plays a myriad of characters amazingly well. Say goodbye Andrew and hello Alex.
Playwright Jonathan Tollins takes an already preposterous premise; the astonishingly true life tale of Barbra Streisand’s cavernous basement that contains a movie set mall to store all of her precious mementos, annotated from her book, “My Passion for Design.” Then, Tollins adds a new level of insanity by wondering, “What if someone worked in that basement mall?”
Enter Alex, our beleaguered protagonist, the main face of Lenk’s repertoire of characters. For the record, Lenk also portrays his own agent, the dude that gets him the gig; a cantankerous caretaker and major domo, Sharon (sounding suspiciously like Leslie Jordan in his own one man show, “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet”); Alex’s boyfriend Barry, a neurotic screenwriter (is there any other kind?); squinty yet masculine Mr. Streisand, James Brolin (from a million movies and TV shows, most notably “Marcus Welby, M.D.”) and the woman who put the ego in EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner), Barbra Streisand herself. Lenk is a whirling dervish in denim and blue cardigan on a baby powder white stage, sparsely set by Michael Schweikardt (there’s a table, chair, chaise and the only other star of the show, the eponymous tome penned by Streisand, “My Passion for Design”).
The show gets absurd when Alex must wait on his one and only customer in the aforementioned mall. In the story, and most likely in real life, Streisand is a complex character. Lenk doesn’t seek to mimic or impersonate, but he does capture Barbra’s essence. There are a few moments of this play where you forget you’re watching just one man having multiple schizophrenic conversations with himself and start to believe the room is full of people.
There is the prerequisite poignant moment, all one man shows have them (it must be in the Big Book of Theater Rules somewhere), but the show is hilariously funny, especially when Lenk is fully committed to his characters (there are a few shaky moments when he peters out, but they are easily ignored).
Don Stephenson coaxes nuanced performances (yes, plural) out of Lenk. It’s a masterful job by both director and actor. The role was originally performed by Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty”) in the Barrow Street Theater Off Broadway, but, after seeing Lenk, it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
There’s really only one flaw. One that rests squarely on the playwright. It is overlong for a comedy. Thirty minutes of the show could be trimmed off and it would be absolutely brilliant. There is a prologue that could easily be jettisoned, it over explains the oncoming action and deflates some of the humor, but watching Lenk transform himself from character to character is worth the extra time in the seat.
“Buyer and Cellar” runs through June 28 at the O’Reilly Theater, Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.