Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Buyer and Cellar"

Buyer and Cellar
Jonathan Tolins

J. Conrad Frank
It all begins with a whole slew of animated disclaimers.  What we are about to hear is “all fiction,” that “I am just an actor.”  (But the part about the fake shopping mall under her house, all true as outlined in her one published book, My Passion for Design.)  With flashing hands, he admits sheepishly, “I was never that big of a Barbra queen” (although he does admit she was “part of my birthright, my heritage.”)  He is quick to add that there will be no impersonating the Great One by him in this show tonight.  “Enough people do her – even some women – so you don’t need me to.”  But of course, “When I tell you about the conversations we had – which never really took place – I’ll just be her, and you can fill in the rest.”  And actually, the audience of the intimate Walker Theatre of the New Conservatory Theatre Center has to fill in very little because for the next ninety minutes, J. Conrad Frank will hold court front and center in his non-stop, rapid-fire version of Jonathan Tolins’ Broadway and touring hit, Buyer and Cellar. 

Since there is only one Barbra who dropped that middle “a,” we all know of whom he speaks in his disclaimers, this Alex Moore (aka as J. Conrad Frank).  Alex has just been fired from Disneyland’s Toontown for an obscene remark made to an obnoxious rug rat.  Through a connection (which any one who is any one in SoCal always has plenty of), he lands a mysterious job at a Malibu Beach mansion that looks like it should be in the middle of picturesque, rural Connecticut.  Only this one, it turns out, has a full shopping mall in the basement, full of the souvenirs, costumes, and tchotchkes collected in a lifetime of stardom by its one and only customer, Barbra Streisand. 

Alex is hired to be the one and only keeper of its many shops (dress, antique, yogurt, Bea’s Dolls, etc.).  And as his new best friends, we get to hear all the many details of his mostly boring days dusting the dolls and rearranging the loaded counters – days that are occasionally punctuated by visits from this one shopper who will just show up, often humming as she descends the stairs.  “And, man, can that lady hum,” he tell us with excited eyes that somehow connect directly with each and every one of us, all now leaning forward in our seats to catch every delicious detail of his totally fictitious encounter with Barbra.

J. Conrad Frank
Mr. Frank’s Alex is so easy to like immediately, and soon he becomes our new best friend.  He sparkles when excited, tantalizes when about to tell a new secret, and melts to a state of endearing vulnerability when crushed by disappointment.  (He can even improvise splendidly as he did after one sudden sneeze when his Alex turns to us with a flip of his wrist and a “’Scuse me, but it’s really dusty down here” before jumping right back into his story-telling.)

Alex also quickly transforms into the Hyde of his Jekyll when his increasingly cynical (and more than just a little jealous) boyfriend, Barry, enters the after-work scene with him back at their apartment.  Struggling screenwriter Barry is a total expert on Barbra (just ask him), and he loves using his edgy voice in pooh-poohing and casting shadows on every new adoration Alex brings to his nightly attention.  That Alex is beginning to talk of her as his ‘friend’ only infuriates the now-screaming Barry even more.

Back at the mansion’s shops, our now-experienced sales clerk can also become when needed the distant, always-keeping-her-eye-on-him house manager, Sharon, or the dreamy-voiced, hey-I’m-your-pal (briefly) James Brolin, present husband and manager of Alex’s prime customer.  But it is when Alex becomes his version of Barbra herself (yes, he does in fact impersonate her, no matter what he said up front) that Mr. Frank particularly shines.  With a left forefinger always flipping the bang falling over her brow and with lips that pucker, eyes that can cross for effect, and extended fingers whose famously long nails are almost detectable, his Barbra is never meant to make fun in any malicious manner.  Instead, she is Alex’s (and probably J. Conrad Frank’s) way of showing complete love and admiration for a unique brand of quirkiness millions adore about her.

One of the joys of Mr. Tolin’s script and Mr. Frank’s delivery (as Alex, Barbra, and Barry) is the constant name-dropping of stars from long ago and last week as well as references to both obscure (“The Mirror with Two Faces”) and well-known (“Funny Girl”) movies and shows.  At the mention of each, reactions from the audience become like random popping of Chinese New Year fire-crackers, as first this one and then another get the connection that many of the rest of us have no idea but then, don’t really care because it is all so fascinating to listen to.

J. Conrad Frank
Devin Kasper has created a stunning yet simple setting on the small flat stage just a few feet from the first row.  Most of the shops’ details are left to our imaginations based on Alex’s detailed, chatty descriptions.  An elegant divan, a plush rug, and a dress form stand (that will have a big dancing role at one point) are engulfed overhead by a series of hollow picture frames of all shapes that climb on a diagonal across the back stage.  To make the set really pop and to establish a basement mall setting, Keira Sullivan has created a fantastic and ever-shifting lighting design.  Applause must also go to the exquisite timing, quality, and light-heartedness of Sara Witsch’s sound design.  While Mr. Frank brings much innate talent and ingenuity to all his characters’ constantly changing expressions and voices, clearly he has been directed with great skill by Rebecca Longworth.

Taking on the role made famous to every gay man (and even other folks not gay) who saw Michael Urie star in the original, J. Conrad Frank excels in tour de force fashion in this outstandingly fun and funny Buyer and Cellar at New Conservatory Theatre Center.  Do not be kept away by having seen the show two years ago at the Curran.  In the intimate Walker of NCTC, this Alex is not to be missed!

Rating: 5 E

Buyer and Cellar continues through April 24, 2016 on the Walker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos Credit:  Lois Tema

No comments:

Post a Comment