J. Conrad Frank. Photo by Lois Tema Photography.

Love in the Basement

Buyer & Cellar at OCT provides perfect theater for the our isolated world

By Rick Levin

A dear friend of mine tells this story about his self-awakening: It was a Saturday night in Euclid, Ohio, sometime in the mid ’70s. He was six or seven at the time, and his family was gathered in the living room watching a rebroadcast of Barbra Streisand’s concert in Central Park.

As my friend watched Streisand stroll onto the stage, elegantly backlit and meticulously coifed, he suddenly thought to himself: She is FABULOUS! It was then, he says, that he first realized he was gay.

I love that story, which captures the gravitational allure Streisand has exerted on generations of gay men — an allure which this particular straight guy has respected and flirted with but found difficult to fully comprehend. Less so now, however, thanks to Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s sharp and funny production of Buyer & Cellar, a one-man play by Jonathan Tolins that premiered in New York in 2013.

Directed by OCT’s Craig Willis and performed by actor J. Conrad Frank, this show is a lark, in the best sense of the word. From the get-go, Frank, playing the struggling gay actor Alex More, demolishes the fourth wall: None of this is true, he tells us; it’s merely a fiction of the playwright, and what you’re being let in on is nothing but fantasy. It’s a brilliant ruse, simultaneously dismantling any expectation of verisimilitude while drawing us into a tall tale that is as fetching and funny as it is revealing and bittersweet.

Turns out Alex, recently fired after a hilarious fuck-up as a character actor at Disneyland, is hired to curate the lavish basement at Streisand’s Malibu estate — a basement the star has turned into her own personal shopping mall. At first, Alex spends his days alone among the expensive knickknacks of the singer’s life, from exotic dolls to the original gowns she wore in past productions. He swoons over it all, but eventually grows bored.

And then, one day, Barbra herself wanders downstairs. It would be difficult to overstate the incredible thrill of watching Frank assume both roles; his portrayal of Streisand is neither imitation, caricature nor parody, but rather a pure product of the imagination, sprung from a combination of longing, love and hope. And because of this, it doesn’t matter if it’s accurate or true. It’s somehow truer than true, and a wonder to behold.

These two unlikely characters engage in an enticing game of consumer cat-and-mouse, with Barbra trying to talk down the price on purchasing what is, absurdly, her own doll. These scenes are funny and sweet, and they detail an evolving if tentative friendship, a kind of hedged opening-up that sends Alex over the moon. It also opens up a growing rift with his boyfriend Barry, who is on the outside looking in to this strange and exotic, nay impossible, relationship between a gay icon and her adoring fan.

The play is very funny, with lots of celebrity snark and razor wit, and it contains just the slightest edge, a bawdy and bitchy undercurrent that works to balance the cottony fantasia of its impossible premise. The simple set, along with Willis’ economical direction, works to focus all the attention on the story, and the storytelling, which Frank pulls off wonderfully. It’s impossible not to like his Alex, whose bemusement, insecurity and jaded smarts collide in the most attractive way. And Frank’s (which, in context, is Alex’s) Streisand is a revelation, a figure no less ethereal and divine for being confined to this most limited and domestic of spaces. Even though she’s utterly dreamed up, Streisand comes across as all too human, equal parts fragile, grandiose and yearning for human connection.

Despite the outward appearances of being a lightish romp, Buyer & Cellar carries weight in its bones. Yes, it has a lot to say about our relationship with celebrity (or, should I say, royalty?). But at its core, it is a meditation on desire, identity, love and, especially, the limits of friendship. This plays out most dramatically in the strange triangle that develops between Alex, Barbra and Barry, who grows increasingly critical of Alex’s devotion to Barbra and eventually asks him to choose between himself and her. The way this resolves is neither tragic nor grand, but it is surprising, both sad and uplifting, and it does contain a big transformation for Alex.

In a sense, this is the perfect play for right now — a story about a lonely guy working alone in a basement and coming to terms with himself, his identity and his longing for connection in the wider world. Sitting among an audience of about a hundred patrons, spaced out and masked up, it felt nonetheless like a communal experience — the kind of shared moment in time that distinguishes live theater. It felt good to be back.

Buyer & Cellar runs through Feb. 6 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway. Tickets are $20-$44 at OCTheatre.org. Masks and vaccination or recent test required.