Phil Tayler Talks 'Buyer & Cellar' at the Lyric

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday December 9, 2015

If I knew for sure going in whether Jonathan Tolin's play "Buyer & Cellar" was rooted in fact, like David Sedaris' "Santaland Diaries," or entirely fictional, I lost that certainty during the show's 100 uproarious minutes. As embodied by Boston theater regular Phil Tayler, narrator and main character Alex comes alive -- and so does Barbra Streisand. The characterization of the singing superstar seemed so genuine that I was almost certain the show must be based in truth.

"No, it's definitely a work of fiction," Tayler informed me, laughing, as we chatted over the phone recently. "But it is just a little too possible, isn't it?"

Absolutely. It's the sort of fiction that's strange enough to be true. In the one-man show, Alex is hired to serve as a sort of shopkeeper for Streisand's private "mall," a clutch of fake shops constructed in the basement of one of the outbuildings of her Malibu estate. It's a private sanctuary of glitz and fashion where the famed singer and actor can browse through her own collected belongings and pretend to buy them all over again. Memorabilia from her films (including original and replica costumes fill the spaces, along with jewelry, tchotchkes, and other assorted items... including a popcorn machine and a frozen yoghurt machine.

The job involves days on end of boredom, but when she enters the mock shopping district, she brings a glow of creative genius with her. Quick to think on his feet, Alex plays the game well: He makes up outrageously complicated and unlikely stories about the provenance of a certain antique, and pretends to haggle -- or rather, refuses to haggle -- over its price. Streisand wins that battle with a clever riposte, but Alex's moxy earns her respect and the two becomes friends -- sort of. Alex's boyfriend Barry, initially thrilled at the idea of Alex's job and itching to hear any and all scraps of dishy Barbra-related gossip, quickly sours on Streisand, feeling that the superstar is poaching Alex from him. Has Alex actually made a friend in Streisand, or -- as Barry charges -- is he one more acquisition to be stowed away in the star's basement and taken out from time to time to be played with?

I saw the play on a Sunday afternoon, having spent the weekend up to that point with other members of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus in Provincetown for the annual Holly Folly. I had been curious to see what Tayler would do with a gay role, and equally intrigued to see him in a one-man show. Not that I had much in the way of doubts; among his many Boston area credits, Tayler has appeared in nine previous shows at the Lyric, including the Elliot Norton Award-wining "Avenue Q," not to mention a boisterous production of "On the Town," a smashing "Sweeney Todd," and even an updated version of "Working."

All the same, watching Tayler's performance, I felt a compulsion to look around and be sure I was back in Boston and among a largely "straight" world. Tayler's depictions of all the play's characters are spot-on -- none more so than gay narrator and main character Alex.

"I'm humbled by that," Tayler said. He went on to add, "It's kind of questionably my first gay role; I did 'Marry Me a Little' at New Repertory Theater a couple years ago and there was a little androgeny there. I've also played the Emcee in 'Cabaret,' which you know is probably the epitome of sexually aloof roles. So it was my first time as a realistic gay character, I would say; somebody who identifies with the gay crowd. It was just the most fun. There's so much life in that community, and it's so much fun to dive into the icons of that territory, like Barbra Streisand."

There was, of course, more fun to be had with the fact that jealous boyfriend Barry is also a major player. Tayler interprets the both Alex and Barry as recognizably gay, but he avoids a one-size or stereotypical approach, imbuing each of the characters with very different tenors and temperaments. In his hands, it sometimes it almost seems as though the relationship between the two is a third character in itself.

"Yes, and one [partner in that relationship] is a little bit over the top, as you noticed," Tayler said -- meaning Barry, who is the sharper (and more cutting) of the two. Tayler spoke of "kind of toning down Alex... he's almost a 'straight' gay character. He has to still be wooed over to Barbra Streisand; as he says himself, he's not a Barbra queen when he started, but quickly she took hold of him and that celebrity status easily transcends boundaries. But," Tayler adds, Tolins' script "does a really nice job of making that differentiation between that bitchy, catty gay [like Barry] who's going to be obsessed with the tabloidism and voyeurism of celebrity, and Alex, who's actually interested in Barbra as a human being."

The challenge of this particular show extends well beyond two often-quarreling lovers who find themselves brought to a point of romantic crisis by Alex's new job. The show also requires Tayler to take on the roles of a house manager, Streisand's husband James Brolin, and -- of course -- Barbra herself. It sounds like an enormous challenge.

"It's more of a challenge than going up on stage and only playing one of the characters, that's for sure," Tayler said. "But with that, it's also a lot more fun because it's really hard to get bored. There's no time; you have to know the script inside and out, because it's one transition and then the next and you have keep on your toes. You have to know three transitions down the road, so that you don't get tied up in any focal point or any specific moment, which makes it a little hard to play the touching moments of the show because they come in between this farcical comedy of characters flipping back and forth... It's something I really love doing on stage."

The production's set is a luxuriously large and mostly empty space that is both gracious and carefully nonspecific -- it could be Streisand's foyer, or the living room of some grand old building that's now tenanted and rent-controlled. The show's blocking, under the direction of Courtney O'Connor, ensures that there's never any confusion about where we are, and the lighting by Chris Brusberg creates striking differentiations between the settings. The flat where Alex and his partner live is lit in a colder, bluer tone, whereas Barbra's place is brighter and sometimes has a golden hue about it.

"He did a fantastic job of looking at the color scheme of each individual [environment]," Tayler acknowledged. "He watched my performance quite closely and made sure he was helping me as much as possible with those transitions, giving me that extra push... Not that I can't do it as an actor, but it's always easier for the audience when it's a little more specific. It really does help the show feel like it's all tied into the back and forth [of the story that Alex narrates], and to the charisma of these characters."

Other design elements came into play for this effect as well.

"The sound design, as you noticed, Dave Remedios really likes going for the naturalistic," Tayler said, "so there were a couple of moments in the show that he had a little difficulty designing. He'd say, 'You know, it doesn't really seem right.' And we started talking about how there's that undercurrent in the character; there's music that plays in people's minds when experience new things. Once he wrapped his mind around that, he really started designing the soundscape to support the story that we're telling. He did a really fantastic job of integrating all those elements."

The key focal point of a one-person show, though, is the actor. Tayler makes the show his own, but I wondered if that also meant the show was a lonely experience for him.

"Rehearsal was exceptionally lonely, not knowing how the audience was going to respond and what role they were going to play," Tayler recalled. "But in a one man play, the audience is the second character -- and really, the most important character. The play is for them. When you tell somebody a story, it's not for you; it's more for whoever you're telling it to -- whether it's for you friend, your mother, your sibling. Once we got into the space and I got an audience and I realized that everyone was soaking up the story and everyone was experiencing it with me, it got so far from lonely it's hard to describe. It actually feels like you walk out on stage, you meet 200 new friends, you have a good laugh -- or many, many good laughs -- and then you go about your day and everybody's a little bit changed for the better. They walk out with a little bit of a bounce in their step."

There is a palpable dynamic to the show that's akin to stand-up comedy in terms of the energy and the timing in Tayler's performance. He instantly and expertly forged a connection with the room that never wavered, and more than once he seemed to glow with the intensity of the tale he was telling - all of which gave the material the living electricity it needed to spark.

"Yes, particularly in the performance you saw!" Tayler enthused. "The audience was just going. At certain points I had to talk over the audience's laughter and be, like, Hey, the story has to move along. We have to end at some point. They got me many times, and it's great to have that kind of feedback loop and connection with the audience, where I was laughing just as much as you guys were -- except I had a performance to keep up! It was really fun for me because there was the challenge of me trying to staying in and not let the joy and humor that comes out of this beautiful script, crafted so well, and it's just... if I can get the same amount of laughs as the audience, then it's just a joy to perform."

Tayler's work is mainly in musical theater, and "Buyer & Cellar" offers a couple of fleeting moments that use his singing talents. It seemed he might have found his singing background helpful in getting into the mindset to perform a show that involves one of the most famous singers in the world.

"Indirectly," Tayler mused. "Having been a musical theater performer for so long, and having my training be in musical theater, Barbra Streisand has always been an icon of that genre. Knowing that genre inside out really helped me understand how magnificent her career is. But it really didn't help me with all of the references because a lot of it relates to her movie career, which a lot of that was lost on me at first, until I started really researching [her filmography] -- watching 'The Way We Were,' or 'Funny Girl,' or going back and seeing all the fantastic movies she's made. I was kind of humbled by how much her career spans. She's done everything -- classical music, jazz music. Having an in to the musical theater side helped; I don't think my singing per se helped with the actual performance, but it certainly helped that I had a really good understanding of how Barbra has affected the musical theater canon itself."

"Buyer & Cellar" runs at the Lyric Stage Company through Jan. 3. Looking beyond that, Tayler has several projects on his schedule. When he's not onstage portraying Barbra Streisand's fictional employee, he's in rehearsals with Israeli Stage for "another one-man piece," Tayler said. "It's a play about a child with dyslexia. It's for young audiences. It's a really nice adaptation of how dyslexia can frustrate and stifle children, and how it impacts their social abilities and learning abilities, especially when they're in denial. And then I'm doing a reading of a brand new musical called 'Lobster Girl' at Stoneham Theater -- that's going to be later in January, right after 'Buyer and Cellar' closes.

"And then I'll be doing 'Peter and the Starcatcher,' my eleventh performance with the Lyric Stage Company," Tayler added. "That's going to be the best time! It's a very inventive script. It's ensemble-based. It'll be nice to be back onstage with other people."

No doubt, but in the meantime he's doing fine work in the multiple roles required by "Buyer & Cellar." He certainly had me convinced.

"Awesome," Tayler said, a smile in his voice.

"Buyer & Cellar" continues through Jan. 3 at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.