In a basement on Barbra Streisand's Malibu compound is a "street" of impeccably designed shop fronts where the actress-singer-director stores and presents her art, acquisitions and memorabilia, creating a kind of pretend mini mall — for a clientele of one.
This strange-but-true setting, described in Streisand's 2010 coffee table book about her sumptuous estate, "My Passion for Design," captured writer Jonathan Tolins' imagination as he wondered what it would be like to work in the world's loneliest mega-star mall?
The result is "Buyer & Cellar," the solo show starring Michael Urie (TV's "Ugly Betty'') that is an off-Broadway hit, earning Urie the 2013 Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance and reviews like buttah. Entertainment Weekly calls it "beyond brilliant." Variety calls it "absolutely delicious" and Ben Brantley in the New York Times calls it the "most talked about new comedy of the season."
In the show, Urie, 33, plays Alex More, an unemployed Los Angeles actor who takes the very odd job overseeing the "shoppes" of "relentless good taste combined with the total lack of financial restraint." He also forms an endearing-if-tenuous relationship with the superstar. Urie also plays Barbra, as well as Streisand's husband, easy-going James Brolin; the compound's serious manager Sharon; and Barry, Alex's acerbic lover who acts as the outside voice of reason in the Babs vortex, constantly remarking on the unhealthy, unreality of it all.
"I was not like a huge Barbra fanatic, though I really like her early stuff," said Tolins recently from his Fairfield home where he lives with his husband writer Robert Cary, children Selina, 9, and Henry, 3, and mother-in-law. "She is a phenomenal talent but she was never an obsession." Being dispassionate about her, he says, helped in writing the work that he describes as "an exploration of this giant myth of celebrity and wealth."
Tolins only met Streisand once, in 1993 when she became interested in getting the film rights to his play "The Twilight of the Golds" after its brief Broadway run. She passed on the project but her son, Jason Gould, later played the role of the gay son — based on Tolins — in a 1997 London production. The writer jokes he imagined Jason, Barbra and Jason's father Elliott Gould starring in the film version of it and renaming it 'The Twilight of the Goulds.' (The Streisand-less film for Showtime eventually starred Faye Dunaway, Brendan Fraser and Garry Marshall.)
Tolins work also includes the plays "If Memory Serves," "Last Sunday in June" and "Secrets of the Trade." He also wrote the screenplay to the film 2007 film "Martian Child" starring John Cusack, contributed to Oscar and Tony telecasts and wrote the sitcom "Partners" as well as the first season of "Queer as Folk."
Making It A Play
The Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised Tolins originally wrote "Buyer & Cellar" as a short essay but a friend urged him to think of it as a solo play, imagining a more expansive story between the fictitious actor/clerk and the superstar/shopper.
As Urie as himself tells the audience before the play begins: "What I'm going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand."
So was Tolins apprehensive about a call from the diva's attorneys?
"I let lawyers read the first half of it and they weren't very encouraging," says Tolins. "They basically said I was on pretty safe legal ground but that didn't mean I wouldn't be sued. But in some ways it was liberating, because I took the attitude, 'Well, this will never be [done] because no producer will ever take the chance. So I just decided to finish it for myself — which was very freeing. I tried to delight myself as much as possible."
Eventually, producers' enthusiasm trumped their fears, Urie signed on and the show opened to glowing reviews at the not-for-profit Rattlesnake Theater Company before moving to New York City's larger commercial venue at the Barrow Street Theatre.
Though it humorously plays off Streisand's reputation as a perfectionist, of her being removed from every day life, and of her being wary of the people around her, it is also a sympathetic and bittersweet portrait of her as well.
"I think she is amusing because she often takes herself very seriously, which can also be endearing," says Tolins. "But she has a sense of humor, too, and she seems to know that she can be a bit obsessive. She wants things to be the way she wants them which she sees as part of her exacting artistic vision. But ultimately you can never get everything the way you want it — and that's what life is all about."
In Alex, he creates a lovable gay character who mistakes proximity for friendship.
"I know a lot of Alexs, unemployed actors in L.A. I was one. I started my career temping at Disney and was an assistant for several people for a while so I know something about that unequal show business relationship."
Nature of Relationships
And who was Tolins' "Barbra,": a celebrity he greatly admired in his youth and fantasized being their friend? He said there wasn't quite the equivalent of Alex-Barbra dynamic but in his play, "Secrets of the Trade," he described a mentor relationship that was based on several people he worked with early in his career.
"One person who took an interest in me and gave me the kind of assurance that said I'm OK was conductor James Levine, but I've had a bunch." He also named actor-director-game show comedian Charles Nelson Reilly, writer Larry Gelbart and Dick Cavett as others.
Working with Bette Midler for her "Millennium" tour and Las Vegas show, he says, also gave him a taste of what it was like to live in a superstar's orbit.
"I know what it's like to be in those rooms. When I worked at the Williamstown Theatre Festival someone said to me that I always knew how to be just ingratiating enough and how to say the right thing. He didn't mean it as a compliment. I am a people pleaser. I was a good boy. So like Alex, not that I'm a brown nose, but I have an innate sense of how to be useful and appealing enough to get into those rooms and not blow it once I was there. But those relationships can only take you so far."
Something writer-comedian Bruce Vilanch said rings true for Tolins. "He is very smart about knowing exactly what kind of relationship it is when you work for someone. He said, 'You're not their friend.' And that's what Alex gets a little confused about in the play."
Tolins says the show's success, and that it is often described as a loving portrait, has made him relax about receiving a summons at the door.
"I think if Barbra was able to see it as a whole [she would like it] but I think there are too many things that the character of Barry says along the way that would make her upset.
"We've had people who know her well who have seen the show and later told her that they loved it. And just last week her p.r. guy came to the play and he loved it, too. I asked him right after the show, 'What will you say if she asks?' And he said, 'She's going to call in a few minutes. I'll tell her that it's wonderful — but that it's not for her.' "
"BUYER & CELLAR" is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., New York City, through Jan. 5. Tickets are on sale through Oct. 13. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. (There is no performance Sept. 3; a matinee has been added Sept. 4 at 2:30 p.m.) Tickets are $75. Information: 212-868-4444 and www.smarttix.com and www.buyerandcellar.com.
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