Boulevard of Streisand dreams

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 29, 2016
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J. Conrad Frank plays an unemployed actor hired by Barbra<br>Streisand to tend to her little shopping village in her basement in <i>Buyer<br>& Cellar,</i> now at New Conservatory<br>Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
J. Conrad Frank plays an unemployed actor hired by Barbra
Streisand to tend to her little shopping village in her basement in Buyer
& Cellar,
now at New Conservatory
Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema

At what point does overcompensation turn into mania? Never, if you've got the bucks and a secure location. And if your name is Barbra Streisand, you may even be able to document, market, and feed that mania all at the same time. Welcome to the Babs Cave.

Buyer & Cellar takes place in a quaint burrow of shops that Streisand had built beneath one of the buildings on her Malibu compound to house her memorabilia. It gets a chapter deep into her 2010 coffee-table book My Passion for Design, which offers photos and prose by Streisand, recordings of her meticulously good-taste makeover of the interiors that compromise her home, but playwright Jonathan Tolins (The Last Sunday in June) zeroed in on this one component.

Tolins' play was an off-Broadway hit of 2013, and it played the Curran Theatre the following year with original star Michael Urie. New Conservatory Theatre Center is now presenting Buyer & Cellar, and if the production seems a bit close on the heels of the original, it's worth a revisit because the material is so darn funny and laced with sincerely poignant moments, and because J. Conrad Frank (aka Katya Smirnoff-Skyy), for whom the play was specifically chosen, brings his own finesse and shadings to the central character.

The notion of your own private little street of "shoppes" with essentially only one customer is comic enough, but you need an outsider's point of view to play off Streisand's to create a piece of theater. And so Tolins invents Alex More, a mostly unemployed actor in Hollywood recently fired from his gig as the mayor of Toontown at Disneyland, who is hired to dress like a merchant from some period-piece musical, keeping the collections tidy and dusted, and essentially just be there in case Streisand pays a visit.

Alex finds he can draw out the warily private Streisand by embracing his role with his training in improv " creating heartwarming backstories for the antique dolls, for example " and by providing a quietly empathic ear for the insecurities, resentments, and past hurts that always seem to be roiling beneath Streisand's lacquered veneer. Something of a friendship develops, but we all know it's built on eggshells and won't sustain any deviation from the accepted scenario. The collapse feels contrived, and is one of the few missteps in Tolins' script.

Alex mostly talks to the audience, lending sardonic observations of his experiences. "The leaves on the trees shimmered like sequins on Liza Minnelli," he notes on first driving onto the estate, before noticing the color-coordinated fish in the koi pond. Once inside, he immediately focuses on a mannequin wearing a costume from Funny Girl, the "People" dress, and Alex begins to feel like "a little girl in Fatima blinded by a vision of the eternal."

Under Rebecca Longworth's carefully honed direction, Frank knows how to mix the outlandish with nuanced understatement. He tells us at the start that he doesn't "do" Streisand " a specific impersonation, that is " and his moments recreating her appearances in the basement mall bring a touch of parody to words and emotions that are also recognizably genuine from her interviews and public statements.

Frank also plays Streisand's somewhat thick husband, James Brolin, who makes a brief visit to check out his wife's new confidante, but more fun are Frank's recreations of conversations with his boyfriend, Barry, a struggling screenwriter who aims to puncture Alex's increasingly glowing tales of his days with Streisand. It angers him that "this incredibly privileged, powerful woman still acts like a Dickensian victim." Frank creates a strong contrast between the bewitched Alex and the cynical Barry while still maintaining humor in each. Barry's condensed summation of The Mirror Has Two Faces is hilariously devastating and pretty close to the truth.

Frank's occasional stumbles over dialogue (at least on opening night) are more jarring than they might be in other circumstances. But this is also a testament to how fully Frank is able to pull us into the strange little world that his character gets to briefly occupy.

 

Buyer & Cellar will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 24. Tickets are $25-$45. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to nctcsf.org.