It's hard to believe that Buyer & Cellar is actually a one-man show and a work of fiction. That's because Christopher J. Hanke, in the starring role, does so much more than show you the tale of someone hired to work in the mall in Barbra Streisand's basement. Hanke commands the stage for the full 100-minute show. You'll even start to believe that some of his various characters are real and endearing. Hanke responded to some of my questions via email:
What drew you to this role? Did you have an appreciation for Streisand's life and career?
Hanke: Health insurance coverage...
I kid. You know, it's pretty simple, and has nothing to do with the Barbra of it all. I saw the play and just knew I had to do it. It is so rare to find a combination of excellent comedic writing (in this case, by the very gifted Jonathan Tolins) and the opportunity for an actor to play six or seven different roles -- that was the draw for me. I just had to convince the creative team and producers that I was the guy. Luckily, they take bribes.
This play begins with a long prelude. Why the emphasis on whether these events were real or fictional?
Hanke: Lawsuits, Danny, lawsuits.
No, I think that Jon has wisely crafted the prologue at the top the play to kind of settle the audience into what to expect -- not "lowering the bar" per se -- but just giving the rules of the game. And I think this is extremely important in letting the audience's imaginations soar to visualize all of these characters in their own mind... what is Barbra wearing, what does Sharon the house manager look like, how big is Fifi the doll? If the circumstances were based on actual true events I don't think the audience would be as invested internally. Our version makes it their story, too.
The background to this story is based on reality, though. It plays up Streisand's love for collecting for laughs. How'd you handle the material and lighthearted outlook?
Hanke: I handled the material pretty easily honestly. One, because comedy is my first love and the play is wicked funny. But two, because Jon Tolins made it so easy. So easy to latch onto the punch line roller coaster because he gave the play so much heart and truth. This play wouldn't be as funny without that sincerity and realism. That is what made it so easy to grab on.
Image courtesy of Joan Marcus.
Still, this play has a lot of heart to it. What do you hope the audience walks away learning about Streisand, fame, and young actors trying to break into Hollywood?
Hanke: Oh gosh. A couple of things... one, that people see a mirror held up to themselves... to see whatever buttons this play pushes for them -- and there are several. Are you someone who makes fun of people more talented than you? Are you someone constantly trying to please others at the expense of your own journey?
Does fame consume you? If so, at what cost? I love all these themes that the play evokes. But mostly, and most sincerely, I hope audiences walk away with a compassion for Barbra and for the human imprint she has left on our hearts. She is an American treasure.
You play a number of roles as the lone actor inside of a 100-minute show. Is it tough to keep up the pace and energy to constantly entertain?
Hanke: It's definitely the most difficult show I've ever done. To be telling this story nonstop, alone, with just me talking for 100 minutes and to do it with clarity, enthusiasm, and dexterity demands the utmost concentration. Gone are the days where I could be onstage thinking about the margarita I'm gonna have after the show. Okay, well, maybe I let myself think of that onstage... during the bows.