Whatever your view of Barbra Streisand — she seems to inspire either worship or disdain, often for the same qualities — there’s no question that the singer-actress long ago passed beyond the realm of celebrity into that of legend.
A certain elusive unknowability is a crucial element of that legend, so it’s fitting that a now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t quality is built into the structure of “Buyer & Cellar,’’ Jonathan Tolins’s breezy fantasia on Streisand’s mystique, on fame and its discontents, and on the ever-fraught relationship between fan and star.
Phil Tayler skillfully traverses both sides of that latter equation in Lyric Stage Company’s zesty production of “Buyer & Cellar,’’ a 90-minute solo show directed with a sure hand by Courtney O’Connor.
Tayler portrays Alex More, a struggling actor who goes to work for Streisand in a most unusual job, while also depicting Babs herself, in all her mystery and hauteur. In addition, Tayler channels several other characters, most memorably Alex’s boyfriend, a screenwriter, also struggling, who is hilariously caustic on the subject of La Streisand. When the script calls for a cameo appearance by James Brolin, Tayler and his eyebrows are up to the task.
It adds up to the most confident, multifaceted performance I’ve seen from this fine actor. Tayler’s characterizations are sharply etched, he delivers Tolins’s witty one-liners with brio, and he seems to be having the time of his life as he ranges energetically across the elegant, airy set designed by Anthony R. Phelps. Impressively, Tayler’s concentration remained unbroken even when a spectator’s cellphone went off three different times, for a total of about 10 rings, during a key scene at the performance I attended.
When I saw Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s production of “Buyer & Cellar’’ in New York a couple of years ago, the playwright’s craftsmanship was somewhat overshadowed by Michael Urie’s manic tour de force as Alex. The Lyric Stage production left me with a clearer sense of how adroitly assembled Tolins’s comedy is, despite its seeming slightness. Yes, he has fun racing across the shiny surface of his play while dropping names (the notoriously curmudgeonly Arthur Laurents, California Senator Barbara Boxer, Streisand’s movie costars), but “Buyer & Cellar’’ is also flavored with shrewd observations.
Chief among them is that (in the words of Streisand contemporary Randy Newman) it’s lonely at the top. In his whimsical way, the playwright invites us to consider how we tend to imprison our idols within our expectations and assumptions. There’s a trace of Norma Desmond in Tayler’s portrait of Streisand; the actor finds the vulnerability beneath the star’s imperious demeanor.
“Buyer & Cellar’’ is fictional, but it’s inspired by the strange-but-true fact that Streisand had a shopping mall built in a basement on her Malibu estate. From that, Tolins has concocted a scenario wherein Alex is hired to work at the mall, which contains a doll shop, an antiques store, and a gift shop, along with a frozen yogurt machine and a popcorn maker. There is one customer and one customer only at this mall, and when Streisand does appear, an elaborate verbal dance ensues between her and her new employee.
After she expresses interest in one of the dolls, Alex immediately improvises an elaborate back story involving two French girls in World War II and their flight from the Nazis. Streisand asks the price of the doll; he names an exorbitant sum. She reacts with incredulity; he holds his ground. Under the most artificial, even surreal circumstances, they make a connection.
Soon, Streisand is asking Alex to become her acting coach for a movie version of “Gypsy’’ in which she will play Mama Rose. He gets to see how relentlessly she picks apart every aspect of a script, and how breathtaking she can be when the moment arrives to put down the script and perform. Their relationship burgeons to a point that, to Alex, feels a lot like friendship. And to Barbra? Hmm.
Beyond the steady flow of humor in “Buyer & Cellar,’’ there’s a poignancy to Streisand’s pursuit of perfection, an unattainable goal but one that seems always to beckon to her. After excoriating Alex because he didn’t have change for a transaction in one of the mall’s stores, she tells him: “I just want you to care as much as I do.’’ Later, defending her obsessive attention to detail when she directs a movie, she asks plaintively: “Why can’t people care as much as I care?’’
“Buyer & Cellar’’ immediately follows that line with a joke, but Streisand’s question hangs there in the air, challenging us to answer it.
BUYER & CELLAR
Play by Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Presented by Lyric Stage Company, through Jan. 3. Tickets start at $25. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com.Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.