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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2019 3 weeks ago

'Buyer & Cellar' sends up stars and the people who love them at FST

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The latest Florida Studio Theatre production is a caricature study (no, not quite character) of Barbra Streisand.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar” is Florida Studio Theatre's latest Stage III production. If you’re looking for a show about the lowest circle of show biz hell, you’ve arrived.

Like many young actors, Alex More (Remy Germinario) has a hard time convincing people to pay for his acting talents. He winds up working in a stifling costume at Disneyland — and gets fired when he gives a bratty kid a piece of his mind. Circling the drain of financial ruin, Alex is saved by a miraculous, if improbable, job opportunity.

It seems that a mysterious, wealthy woman created a subterranean Main Street U.S.A. beneath her Malibu home. She lined that street of dreams with a row of shops (or “shoppes”) containing her collections of dolls, dresses and chotskes. She’s now looking for an actor to play the jovial, aproned proprietor. Alex is happy to take the job.

After that, he discovers that the mysterious woman is none other than Barbra Streisand. Alex happens to be gay — but it’s no big whoop. He notes that, “I’m not a Barbra Streisand queen,” though his boyfriend is. Despite this disavowal, Alex is star-struck at their first meeting. Streisand shows off her doll collection, and then starts role-playing. Having taken an improv class at the Groundlings, Alex is more than up to the task — and immediately falls into the quirky shopkeeper role. They haggle over a soap-bubble-blowing doll which Barbra (obviously) already owns. Alex spins a weepy tale explaining the doll’s backstory. Barbra is moved. They’re off to a good start. If you figure their beautiful friendship will evaporate, you’re probably right.

Catherine Randazzo’s lighthearted direction doesn’t encourage you to take this soap bubble material too seriously. Tolins’ play is strange fiction but it’s built on strange fact. Although Barbra never hired a caretaker, she did build a mini shopping mall in her basement. (She tells all about it in “My Passion for Design,” the coffee table book which inspired this play.)

Remy Germinario, the star of "Buyer & Cellar," is a actor, comedian and singer native to Tampa. Photo by Matthew Holler

Germinario unfolds the story in the chummy first-person — a tale supposedly told to his boyfriend. He intersperses the narrative with scenes in which he acts out all the parts. It’s quite a job. Although this is a one-man show, Germinario plays several characters. With subtle shifts in voice and body language, he morphs into the tyrannical house manager, Alex’s boyfriend Barry and, of course, Barbra herself. Here, he doesn’t try for a flat-out vocal impression but sticks to mannerisms and reaction takes. Germinario delivers a great performance, both hilarious and vulnerable.

This bizarre slice of life comes together with Nick Jones' lighting design, Thom Korpe's projection design and Adrienne Webber’s costume design. (One actor = one costume.) Alex has the nerdy fashion sense of a refugee from “The Big Bang Theory.” There’s no set to speak of, just some overstuffed furniture that perfectly evoke Barbra’s big love for big stuff. Bruce Price nails her acquisitive character with a few choice pieces.

This is a very funny play. It’d make a great sketch (or fantasy sequence) on Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk” bit on SNL. Aside from the laughs, what’s the point? Uh ...

Actually, the play does have a few points to make.

Remy Germinario is the only actor onstage throughout "Buyer & Cellar." Photo by Matthew Holler

First, it’s primarily a character study of Barbra Streisand. But that portrait is obviously a caricature — and oddly both flattering and insulting. Tolins walks a fine line between mockery and idolatry in his portrayal. He goes for the low-hanging fruit — details like Barbra’s long fingernails, etc. But Tolins also sympathizes with her hard-knock childhood. He mocks because he loves.

The playwright also asks a big philosophical question: “Can you have a real relationship if somebody’s paying you to be a character in that relationship?” The answer seems to be “no.” But you can see it coming a mile away. Barbra isn’t going to adopt Alex or bankroll his TV series. Duh.

But these are minor points. Laughter’s the main point.

And people who need laughter are the luckiest people in the world.

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