There are, I think, two very distinct kinds of fame. One is a mostly desirable state of being: It gets you good tables at restaurants, a feeling of accomplishment, a pass through the lines of life in which most of us must wait, a captive audience for any topic on which you might want to pontificate, people at your funeral and the chance to make worthy someone's day, just by being nice to them for a moment. The other kind, the excessive kind, makes normal life intolerable and leads, in many cases, to isolation and accelerating eccentricity. You can come and go from each category, but some brilliantly talented people claw their way to that second kind of zenith and then get stuck there for life, getting stranger by the moment. Michael Jackson comes to mind, as does Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland. Oprah Winfrey faces that danger. And then there's Barbra Streisand.
Babs has built a mall in her Malibu basement — antique shop, doll shop, ye olde sweet shoppe — for a customer base of one. How sad is that?
That collection of subterranean period-style storefronts, the setting for most of Jonathan Tolins' smart and frequently hilarious monologic off-Broadway comedy, "Buyer & Cellar," really does exist. Oprah talked about it on her TV show.
In the prologue to the 90-minute show, which opened a multi-week touring run (original star intact) at the well-suited Broadway Playhouse on Saturday night, the actor Michael Urie tells us (as himself, prior to assuming his character for the night) that the faux mall showed up in Streisand's real book, "My Passion for Design," which you still can buy on Amazon.com and afford yourself a tour of the many upstairs-and-downstairs Streisand interiors. Of course, you make your tour merely by leafing through the pages of a volume and thus not you do not bother the lady of the house, who wants to share but not to share. People? Who needs people?
That's the end of the somewhat factual part. Given Streisand's famously litigious personality and the unauthorized nature of "Buyer & Cellar" (no grand rights granted here), the fully fictive nature of the rest of the show is re-stated many, many times. Tolins and his designers (the simple set is by Andrew Boyce) stay far, far away from all Streisand likenesses, be they of stuff, work or person. But the show is predicated on a great — did I mention this was fictional? — idea.
Urie plays the wide-eyed guy whom Streisand has hired to work down there in her mall.
Job duties for erstwhile actor Alex More, who came to the Streisand estate with Main Street USA experience from Disney World? Keeping the popcorn and soda machines humming, dispensing the frozen yogurt in the Sweet Shoppe, tending to any and all customers wishing to make a purchase, which means tending to the whims of the only customer with ready access.
In one of the more hilarious moments of "Buyer and Cellar," that customer, Her, attempts to negotiate the price for one of her own dolls. Finding herself unsuccessful — Alex, who fancies himself an improviser, has decided that his role-playing assignment requires him to show some chutzpah and thus resistance — the lady of the house returns the following day. With a "coupon" she has gussied up on her printer. Thus she buys back her own doll, only to return it to the shop under the cover of darkness. If you've ever worked for the rich and the powerful, you might recognize some version of that little delusion.
"Buyer & Cellar" is, for sure, something of a 90-minute trifle, an extended sketch that owes a little to the work of David Sedaris and his "Santaland Diaries." But like Sedaris, Tolins is an intellectual populist who knows how to walk both sides of the line between campy, celebrity-driven entertainment and serious cultural inquiry. Early on in the show, he takes on the lyrics of one Streisand's biggest hits, pointing out the incongruity of singing about corners of the mind when the brain is round. And he cleverly gives Alex a boyfriend, a guy who knows almost everything there is know about Streisand and her career-long relationship with gay culture, but resents her demands on Alex and the intimate (kinda) access to her that her sole mall employee enjoys.
Thus "Buyer and Cellar" manages to probe the darker side of our collective celebrity obsession: our seemingly insatiable need to fully know the very people whom you cannot fully know, the way we mercilessly critique their fish-bowl lives from positions of pathetically limited knowledge and yet also turn to jelly when these living icons afford us the time of day.
Then there's the other side of the coin. Although I think he could have gone further, Tolins picks up on how many of the isolated rich and famous use their money to buy themselves a protectable version of community — an impulse that made Michael Jackson build Neverland, sure, but that also is not so different, really, from a more ordinary someone who buys a condo in, say, the Disney town, Celebration. But community is a messy thing; sweep your private mall too often, so to speak, and you do not have any kind of reality in which to play. You can't get the unknown and simultaneously guard against it, to the chagrin of so many of the rich and famous.
I also found myself touched by the play's awareness of how hard it is for the mega celebrity to make a friend: Alex is scared of Her, of course, but she is also scared of what he might do to her. When everyone around you is on your payroll, it is hard ever to hear the truth.
All that said, "Buyer & Cellar" is mostly a lot of laugh-out-loud fun, replete with an engaging performance from Urie, who clearly understands that if Alex is not a likable and empathetic version of ourselves, then the show cannot work. But "Buyer & Cellar" does work, especially for anyone looking for a smart take on the nature of celebrity. "I steered my Jetta along an irregular stone road, " is how Alex describes his surreal first entry into the Streisand compound, "and yet the road was smooth."
Well, yes and no.
Off to the real mall now for me. Probably no parking, though.
When: Through June 15
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins
Tickets: $30-$75 at 312-977-1710 or broadwayinchicago.com