“First, we need to get something straight,” actor Toby Yatso tells us the moment he enters the stage at Phoenix Theatre. “This is a work of fiction.”
The work is Buyer & Cellar, an acclaimed Off-Broadway, one-man comedy by Jonathan Tolins that presents a realistic setting then creates a fictional account of what might have happened had certain elements fallen into place, and it’s uproarious.
During the opening moments, Toby is himself. He introduces himself without giving a name. After telling us that what we’re about to see is fiction he then underlines the point by insisting he’s simply an actor about to perform a play. He proceeds to jog our memory of some of his past work; he quickly mimes the handling of a puppet, something Phoenix Theatre audiences should immediately recognize from his time on Avenue Q. And then we’re off.
Toby plays Alex, an out of work actor recently fired from playing a Disney character in Toon Town. “They don’t call it Mousechwitz for nothing,” he states. Alex is so desperate for work he’s even willing to suffer the eighty-five minute drive with the engine light on across Malibu for a new job in a house of which he knows little. All he’s told is this: he’s to work for someone doing something in an exclusive Malibu home, and that’s as far as it goes. The house turns out to be owned by Barbra Streisand though the job is harder to describe.
In 2010 Barbra Streisand wrote a coffee table book called My Passion for Design. It explained in thorough detail the work that went into the look of her Malibu home, with particular attention paid to the basement. As a way of housing all of Miss Streisand’s massive collection of dolls, clothes and various other objects acquired over a lifetime of being at the top of her game for most of her professional life, she designed an arcade of shops and stores in order to have everything on permanent display instead of hiding the collectibles in boxes or hanging the clothes in closets. “She built a shopping mall in her basement,” Alex declares. That’s all real. What follows is fiction.
Alex’s job is to be the sole mall employee, a solitary retail clerk in a basement arcade, dusting the collectibles, polishing the tables and tending to the customers, except there are no customers; there’s just Barbra Streisand.
Alex talking of the immediate boredom he suffers and the total silence he hears, save for the subtle, background electronic whir of the odd basement machine – a neat, running joke – is amusing, but Tolin’s observant and sharply written script soon hits creatively hilarious heights as Alex tells of his first, lengthy exchange with Miss Streisand. With Toby playing both roles, Alex explains what happened when the Hollywood actress from Brooklyn pretended to be a customer interested in purchasing a certain doll. On the spot, using the ad-lib skills of a trained actor, Alex proceeds to fabricate a backstory for Fifi, the bubble-blowing doll involving a famed French designer, his family, and a daring escape from the Nazis during the German occupation of France.
Toby’s illustration of Miss Streisand is not so much an impression. As explained in the opening moments, he doesn’t do impressions and he doesn’t do Barbra Streisand. “Enough people do her,” Toby, as himself, explains. “Even some women.” Instead, he affects movements – a side glance, a shrug, a finger flick of the hair – all suggesting the performer’s presence, supported by a change of accent. When, as Alex, Toby finally tells Miss Streisand the outlandish price of the doll – something he also ad-libbed on the spot – the actress departs then returns later with a slip of paper stating, “I have a coupon.”
Particularly funny is Alex’s tale of the time when James Brolin entered the basement for yogurt when the two talked of Brolin’s 1978 movie, Capricorn One. “O.J. Simpson,” Alex as Brolin remarks. “Shame he had to give up… acting.” What’s particularly notable about that space age, moon landing, conspiracy thriller – and something you may never have before considered – is that it starred not only the future Mr. Barbra Streisand, but also a previous one; Elliot Gould. “I guess we both landed on Barbra,” Brolin smiles.
On loan from his independently minded Stray Cat Theatre, director Ron May knows a thing or two when it comes to performing a one-man show. As an actor, Ron received deserved acclaim three yeas ago with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and will soon return in the celebrated Richard Bean comedy at Phoenix Theatre, One Man, Two Guvnors. Knowing how it’s done from the perspective of both actor and director, Ron brings that required expertise of knowing only too well the pitfalls, the challenges and the unusual demands of single-handedly carrying a complete production without intermission. But unlike the film industry where final word is usually with the director, once that theatre curtain rises, on stage it’s an actor’s medium, and here it’s down to the performance of Toby Yatso.
Watching Toby as Alex express the feeling of sheer joy when singing with Barbra Streisand as they rehearse moments from Gypsy in the basement is priceless. With animated movements and an energy that never quits, Toby fleshes out Tolins’ script to the degree where promises of a performance only glimpsed in previous productions are here fully delivered. He engages from the moment he enters right up until the final fade out. And it’s not just the humor that works. Writer Tolins also touches on the issue of loneliness and the inability to ever achieve perfection, and it’s Toby’s talent that makes those topics almost tangible.
You can’t help wondering what Miss Streisand would think of all of this. The age where entertainment fluff is presented as news – perhaps to the point where we think we actually know these celebrities – is the back bone to Buyer & Cellar. Of course, in reality, we don’t know them despite what TMZ presents or Extra reports, and it’s down to Toby as Alex to show us why. As presented at Phoenix Theatre under Ron May’s experienced eye, both the play and Toby Yatso are quite remarkable.
Photography by: Erin Evangeline Photography
For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.