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Review: Dive deep into Streisand's basement and beyond in Freefall's 'Buyer and Cellar'

Chris Crawford stars in ‘Buyer and Cellar’ at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja.
Chris Crawford stars in ‘Buyer and Cellar’ at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja.
Published May 17, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Stars: They're actually nothing like us at all.

Take Barbra Streisand. Perhaps you've heard about the basement of her Malibu estate, which she designed to resemble an old-time shopping plaza. Its purpose is to house and display Streisand's vast collection of dresses, dolls and antiques, but its significance is that it proves Babs is a boss who can whimsify her house however she flippin' well pleases. The rest of us generally aren't so lucky. Or, um, insane.

Streisand documented her architectural eccentricities in a 2010 coffee table book, My Passion For Design, which fell into the hands of playwright Jonathan Tolins. Fascinated and bewildered, he made Streisand's basement mall the primary setting of Buyer and Cellar, an off-Broadway hit now being staged at St. Petersburg's Freefall Theatre.

It's a one-person show, Freefall's first since The Tempest in 2015, its lone act clocking in around an hour and 40 minutes. Chris Crawford plays Alex More, an out-of-work actor hired as the mall's one employee, an alienating gig that becomes even more surreal when his iconic Hollywood boss descends the stairs for a visit once, then again, then again. Then again and again and again.

To answer your first question: Yes, the whole play really is about Barbra Streisand, not just inspired by her; it features a clip of Memory, footage from The Mirror Has Two Faces and dishy digs at Little Fockers, The Prince of Tides and The Guilt Trip. This all raises a host of legal questions that Crawford/Alex neatly sidesteps with an early disclaimer: "This is a work of fiction. You know that right? None of this is real. I don't exist."

A play like this cannot help but be mostly deferential to its subject, even if only so it doesn't get sued into oblivion. Nevertheless, Buyer and Cellar — despite its surreal premise and Tommy gun barrage of pop-culture references — turns out to be a deeply considered character study of Streisand, her admirers and her detractors. And thanks to Crawford's inexhaustible performance, a hilarious one at that.

The jokes might hit on a sliding scale, depending on how fascinating you find L.A. life or the soapy machinations behind the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But they do always hit, occasionally with applause-break force. Crawford delivers Buyer and Cellar's downhill dialogue at breakneck pace, with the manic animation of a stand-up comic. He winks and works the crowd in Freefall's intimate space, sticking punch lines without lingering and barely pausing to dab away perspiration. Somehow he makes it through the entire show with only one or two sips of San Pelligrino — sips woven into the plot, no less.

He also plays no fewer than eight characters, including More's boyfriend Barry (whose vicious monologues are exclamatory highlights) and Streisand herself. He warns early on that he doesn't really "do" Streisand; there's enough of that in the world already. But he sells himself short. His Babs is both recognizable and original, playful, almost coquettish, but also forthright and confidently alluring. She's clearly adrift from real-world reality, but not so much that you can't recognize her all-too-human sadness and loneliness.

Pauses for genuine pathos are few and fleeting, but all the more powerful for it. There's a tension that arises between Alex and Barry, and it's unclear on the page exactly how the play earns it — but you overlook it because of the payoff, which is getting to watch Crawford unspool their fights live.

Directed with deceptive simplicity by Timothy Saunders, Buyer and Cellar relies on tiny touches designed to buttress Crawford's star turn. Tom Hansen's shoppe-like set is purposely bland at first blush ("It's as if your grandma designed the Apple Store") but filled with delightful surprises that reveal themselves throughout the show. There are no eye-popping props or special effects, just perfectly timed sound cues and video clips courtesy of Freefall artistic director Eric Davis, who served as sound and video designer.

All the little details matter, especially in a play that delves into Streisand's legendary perfectionism — a trait that molds Buyer and Cellar's message more than you expect, and one that Alex and the audience linger on at play's end.

You might think you have nothing in common with the movie star who built a shopping mall in her basement. But we all have stuff stashed away somewhere — some of it glamorous, some of it ghastly, some of it waiting for just the right moment to come out. Maybe we're all more alike than we know.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

If you go

Buyer and Cellar

Runs through June 9. $29.50 and up. Freefall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. (727) 498-5205. For showtimes, visit freefalltheatre.com.

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