Usually, my partner and I are in agreement about the plays we see. In fact, we go to quite a number of them up in Los Angeles, but the one we saw this past Saturday at the Mark Taper Forum was something of an exception.
What was on view was Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man play starring Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame). It’s a fantasy, based on the idea that this gay guy, a struggling actor played by the energetic and talented Urie, can’t find much work these days, and even gets fired for a misstep while playing a character in Disneyland. As any such down-on-his-luck actor might do, he grabs at a job that comes his way playing a fake salesman in Barbra Streisand’s make-believe mall-in-a-cellar. Alex, the erstwhile actor cum salesman cum actor again, “sells” stuff to Ms. Streisand that she already owns and has accumulated over years of inconspicuous consumption (this stuff is, after all, actually hidden away in the basement “mall” of the barn house on her Malibu estate). The fantasy Streisand comes to the cellar periodically, looking to pick up a bargain, and in the process lots of things happen between salesman Alex and buyer Barbra. The idea is that we are supposed to get a glimpse into the humanity and vulnerability, as well as the occasional manipulative craziness, of the lady of the house.
I have to admit that the audience howled at all of the one-liners between Urie/Alex and Urie/Streisand, as well as between Alex and Urie/Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, who admits to being something of a Streisand addict (like so many other gay men, supposedly). So, I was definitely the odd-man-out in this bunch, since I hardly snickered at all of this stuff, which I found a little over the top and, in the end, not all that interesting.
So, why did my partner like the play, and I didn’t? After all, he has training in theater in the form of a bachelor’s degree in the subject from UC Irvine, as well as having acted himself, designed sets and lighting for a number of plays, his knowledge of theater history is far greater than mine, and his judgment of both drama and comedy is usually impeccable. So, why the disagreement, I had to ask myself? I’m still not exactly sure, but here are a few random thoughts.
The whole play seemed to me a little overdone in a kind of clichéd gay way. Alex was a likeable enough kind of guy and, I have to admit, in the past I’ve known people not too dissimilar from him. At the beginning of the play, he even admits to not being much of a Streisand fan, a thing that I can very much identify with. I’m not trying to deny that she has a lot of talent, mind you, and she was of course wonderful in “Funny Girl,” but let’s just say that her voice – I don’t know how else to put it – somehow doesn’t register with my register. However, it’s clear that during the course of the play, Alex begins to buy into it, and gets swept up in the worship of Ms. Streisand, to the point that he begins to go a little gaga whenever the bell attached to the “shop door” rings at the top of the stairs, announcing her descent into the unconscious realm of the dreamland-mall-in-a cellar. In addition, Urie-as-Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, does occasionally come across as, well, a little too much in a stereotypic, flaming sort of way, prompting me to wonder what, in fact, it was exactly that Alex saw in Barry. Nothing that I found very attractive, anyway.
Still, as my partner has pointed out to me, I seem to have no trouble watching the British sit-com “Vicious” (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, playing an equally overdone, clichéd old gay couple, who speak to each other in the most vicious way, although, underneath it all, they do still care for each other). I even laugh at some of the antics portrayed therein, although not so much at the really nasty turns the dialog sometimes takes. And I can’t fully explain why I accept one, but reject the other. I’ve been told it’s because I’m an Anglophile, and that I like anything and anybody with a fancy British accent, but I don’t think that’s the case (and my Irish ancestors would be rolling over in their collective graves, if it were).
The bigger question as to what I found objectionable in “Buyer & Cellar” has to do with the adulation we in this country have for celebrities. Does that mean that I’m just envious of them? Do we, that is, those of us who are not rich and famous, simply want to have the experience of that kind of stardom? I really don’t think so. I have to wonder why anyone would ever want thousands, maybe even millions, of people to be able to recognize who they are in the street, or in a grocery store. And do celebrities even go grocery shopping? Probably not, I suppose. As much as there are those who insist that this is all just sour grapes, I actually do like the anonymity I have of nobody knowing who I am. We spent almost three weeks in Europe a few months ago, for example, and not a single person there recognized us. Who would want every other passerby on the street stopping you and asking if you’re that famous so-and-so whom they saw in whatever movie that was out last year? That doesn’t sound like fun to me.
And ought we to dig even deeper? Are there other reasons why so many in this country, and throughout the world, almost worship stars, whether they be actors, athletes, or whoever’s face has appeared endless times, “bigger than life,” on countless movie screens? Maybe it has something to do with a kind of emptiness people feel within, an unspoken dread that who they are is somehow “not enough”? I’m not suggesting that most people think this consciously. Probably very few people go about saying to themselves: “Well, I’m just not enough!” But at an unconscious level, that may be exactly what we think. We feel as though there is a hole, a lacking, a looming lacuna somewhere within, and we want, we need, to fill it. And how better to fill it safely (that is, without drugs or alcohol) than somehow imagining ourselves in the role of a fantasy movie star, to whom we attribute a “dream life” of untold fame, endless riches, the adulation of the world, and the fulfillment of every desire we have ever imagined for ourselves? The unspoken message, subtle but enormously powerful, is a simple one: “If I were he/she, if I had his/her wealth, talent, and fame, then everyone would love me, and I would be happy forever in a world without woe.” That said, one thing I did find interesting about “Buyer & Cellar” was the suggestion that even this great “lady of the house” does not experience such material and cultural success as truly enough.
I won’t tell you the ending of the play, although I’m guessing it wouldn’t be all that difficult for you to figure out. Suffice it to say that Alex learns something about himself, and that is a good thing. And although the journey there wasn’t one that I found all that compelling, in this case, I’m willing to admit that I may have been the one whose insight was lacking. After all, the theme of not buying into celebrity notoriety as a substitute for personal fulfillment in our own lives is a laudable one. And maybe, as he so often is, my partner was right after all. Maybe if Alex had only spoken with one of those lovely British accents, I’d have found the whole thing uproariously funny, witty beyond measure, and utterly engaging. Yes, that may well be the case. And if it is, heaven help me for that! May my ancestors back in the old sod forgive me for this kind of silly, and in the end, oh-so-unfulfilling adulation.