Looking for something to do this weekend? If you’re a theater-type person of a certain age (as I typed that sentence, I realized I had no idea of what that age might be,) and you haven’t seen Jonathan Tolin’s comic masterpiece Buyer and Cellar yet, then run, don’t walk to the Barrow Street Theater in Manhattan (or Google it to find when the touring production is coming to a stage near you) and see actor Barrett Foa step into the role of Alex, the struggling actor hired to be the only employee of a very special shopping mall with only one customer.
That customer is none other than the empress herself, the one and only Miss Barbra Streisand. The mall is the street of “shops” (including a snack bar with a soft-serve frozen yogurt machine) that she built in the basement of her Americana-influenced Malibu retreat (which the devilishly clever Tolins observes was almost completely ripped off from the set of the 1950 Judy Garland vehicle Summer Stock) to house her extensive collections of vintage clothes, antique dolls, and other accumulated tschotschkerai.
This may be the most blatantly promotional post I’ve ever written, but I’ve got a good reason: the original production of Buyer and Cellar, starring Michael Urie and directed by Stephen Brackett, was my favorite thing I saw all of last year, and possibly ever. I’d been fascinated by Barbra’s private mall since I first read about it in her unintentionally hilarious book My Passion for Design (which also details her love of indefinable colors, which becomes major plot device in the show), mostly because it made me think that was exactly how my shopaholic grandmother would have chosen to display her collections of all the same things, if only money had been no object.
But what Buyer and Cellar does so brilliantly is elucidate why. Why so many Jewish women of a certain age and class origin and unconventional beauty became obsessed with perfect porcelain dollies and Americana-chic. What it meant to have a barn and a windmill and everything covered in chintz. How important it was that they too have all the trimmings of the heirloom American experience—the cheerful quilts, the commemorative plates. All the external trappings of belonging that they saw in the movies but could never quite feel watching the indifferent boys play stickball from the stoops of their homes in the urban ghettoes of Brooklyn and South Side Chicago.
If boys had aspirational shiksa goddesses, the girls had aspirational shopping experiences, moments in which everything they weren’t born with could be for sale. Streisand’s mall is like a British aristocrat building a chapel on the grounds of his country estate: it’s a place to get a little religion without having to deal with other people. Because while needing other people might be great, people who have to regularly see other people are the unluckiest people of all.
It’s a spiritual experience, and so is Buyer and Cellar. Go. You can thank me later. With a gift.