Review of Alberta Theatre Projects' production of Buyer and Cellar; April 5 - 23, 2016 at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, AB.

Buyer and Cellar doesn't quite sell it

Despite an impressive one-man performance, Buyer and Cellar falls flat.

Imagine having your own mall in the basement of your house. That would be pretty sweet, huh? Now imagine if you were a huge celebrity icon and everything in your mall was old costumes and collectables from movies you were in. Basically, your basement serves as a super nice, giant closet with a section for things like nice soaps and lotions (aka your own Bath & Bodyworks) and frozen yogurt and popcorn concessions (your own Tutti Frutti and Kernels Popcorn). And to top things off, you name is Barbra Streisand. Alberta Theatre Projects’ final play of the season, Buyer and Cellar, by Jonathan Tolins, is about Alex More (Steven Gallagher) the one employee hired to work in Streisand’s spectacular basement mall.

Buyer and Cellar is a great opportunity to watch Gallagher deliver an amazing one-man show. Besides playing Alex, Gallagher also plays a number of other characters including Streisand, Alex’s boyfriend, Sharon the housekeeper, and James Brolin (Streisand’s husband). There’s a full cast of characters, but only one actual actor and Gallagher is terrific. Watching Gallagher quickly and seamlessly switch from one character to the next with such strong characterization and conviction is so much fun. It makes you question why you would actually ever need more people on stage. At one point, Alex has a major argument with his boyfriend, Barrie, and Gallagher is so believable as both characters that it’s mind blowing. Gallagher truly delivers a tour de force performance in this show.

Despite an impressive one-man performance, Buyer and Cellar falls flat. There are so many different themes thrown into Buyer and Cellar and none of them seem to shine through definitively. For example, there’s the theme of being a filthy rich celebrity but still lonely as f*ck. Another of the show’s themes is that some successful people, motivated by a sad childhood, fight and make it to the top – but to the detriment of using and abusing others along the way.

David Fraser's beautiful set helps captures the essence of what a mall in Barbra Streisand's basement would be like. Photo credit: Alberta Theatre Projects

A theme that I pulled from the show (and I’m not sure if writer Tolins knowingly wrote this in) is that as a society, we like to surround ourselves with artificialness. Before coming to work in Streisand’s basement mall, Alex worked at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the happiest place on earth but also one of the most artificial. The play also references the Grove, which is a glorious hub of shopping, entertainment, food and drink in LA. Complete with a trolley that runs through the area and water fountains that perform spectacular shows set to music, the Grove is magnificent, but also undeniably artificial at the same time.

So there’s apparently a running theme throughout the show about how we live our lives in a world of fakeness (think walking through Chinook Centre before Christmas, while drinking your fav holiday Starbucks drink), yet can’t achieve any real satisfaction in life unless we have something real and genuine to hang onto. In Buyer and Cellar, Alex doesn’t realize what this real and genuine thing is in his life until he’s gone through the whole experience of working in Streisand’s mall.

The problem with everything is that I’ve just explained this theme way better than the actual play does. In the mishmash of underlying themes running through Buyer and Cellar, audiences will be confused about what to really make of everything, since everything seems to be randomly thrown at you near the end. Additionally, the majority of the play is pretty dull. The character conflict and drama doesn’t seem to really take off until the last 25 minutes of the show.

Steven Gallagher puts on an impressive one-man show, but the show itself is written for such a specific audience that commercial viability could be challenging. Photo credit: Alberta Theatre Projects

Also, while I thought all the references to Streisand’s career, Judy Garland, musicals and the golden days of Hollywood were quite charming, even a knowledgeable musical theatre person like myself could not keep up with all these references. So many jokes and puns went over not only my head, but the rest of the audiences’ as well, and I genuinely felt bad for Gallagher as he worked his butt off onstage, trying to deliver jokes that the majority of the audience didn’t understand.

The set, designed by David Fraser, is very pretty and when my friend and I walked into the theatre at the start of the show, my friend commented on how she wished her room resembled the set. So if you’re in the mood to see an outstanding actor perform a one-man show in a pretty set, Buyer and Cellar may be your thing. But this isn’t the kind of play that will keep you smiling as you walk out the theatre, nor will you remember it for long. As much as I hate to rain on Alberta Theatre Projects’ parade, this is not a parade you have to worry about passing you by (if you don’t get this pun, this show definitely isn’t for you).

Alberta Theatre Projects’ production of Buyer and Cellar runs at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Arts Commons until April 23.