“I’ve always found Barbra Streisand a fun character because she’s a combination of a megastar and my [Jewish] mother,” said playwright Jonathan Tolins, whose play “Buyer & Cellar,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, spotlights Babs’ relationship with an admiring employee. “I feel like there’s a part of Barbra who would be very happy to be shopping at Loehmann’s if she weren’t recognized.”
Shopping of a very different sort is at the heart of “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man show starring Michael Urie (“Ugly Betty”) and set in a re-creation of the lavish faux mall of shops Streisand created in real life on her Malibu estate to display her collectibles.
In the play, Urie portrays Streisand and five other characters, including Alex, a struggling actor who goes to work as the ersatz proprietor of Streisand’s mall, where the star arrives to “shop” among such venues as a vintage clothing store, an antique doll emporium, a “Gift Shoppe” and a frozen-yogurt stand. As the star and her employee bond and clash, the play becomes not only a celebration of Streisand, but also a meditation on the loneliness of celebrity as well as the complex relationships people of power share with their underlings.
Tolins, 47 and a graduate of Harvard University, experienced a similar dynamic when, as a struggling writer in Los Angeles, he worked as a temp, an assistant and even “as a writer for some powerful, rich people,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in Fairfield, Conn. That “proximity to power” gave him the “feeling that you’re close friends, but you’re not … and of being on eggshells all of the time, because the famous or more powerful person often expects you to be able to read their minds, and they’re disappointed or angry when you can’t.
“I find these ‘assistant’ relationships really interesting … because [actually] both sides have power,” he added. “The employer obviously has the power of the purse and the ability to fire someone, but, oddly, often the person in power really cares about how their employee feels and thinks about them. They like the illusion that this is a real friendship, but when push comes to shove, that can erode very quickly.”
Nevertheless, Tolins insisted, “Buyer & Cellar” does not reduce Streisand’s character to a mere caricature of a spoiled diva. “She’s hilarious and self-aware, most of the time,” he said. “And while she is this mythological, hard-to-reach star, she also feels like a Jewish mom.
“What you’re laughing at, often, is how she can be slightly out of touch, but that’s a function of her incredible fame,” he added. “What the play tries to do is show that as much as she can be domineering, she’s also someone who is a little bit scared and suffering from the immense fame that she has. It must be difficult to never know why someone is interested in you, or if they really care about you as a real person.”
Like Tolins, the play’s director, Stephen Brackett, sees the relationship between the fictional lady of the manor and her employee as ultimately poignant. “Alex is someone who has achieved very little in terms of what he’s set out to accomplish, and Barbra is someone who has achieved almost everything that she’s ever attempted,” Brackett said in a telephone interview. “The way that they find a connection, [in their shared] humanity and sense of isolation I find to be quite beautiful and quite moving.”
Streisand herself was gracious when she met Tolins about 20 years ago, during a performance of his play “The Twilight of the Golds,” which was inspired in part by the playwright’s own coming-out-as-gay experience with his Jewish family. She complimented him on “Twilight,” which at the time she was considering adapting into a film (she ultimately did not) and then offered him a piece of her Kit Kat bar, which he declined for fear of making a mess in front of the megastar.
Streisand’s son, Jason Gould, even starred as “Twilight’s” gay protagonist in a London production of the play, although Barbra did not attend because, Tolins theorized, of all the paparazzi waiting to pounce on her outside the theater.
The inspiration for “Buyer & Cellar” first came to the playwright in late 2010, when Tolins’ husband, the playwright Robert Cary, brought home a copy of Streisand’s coffee-table book “My Passion for Design,” an exhaustive saga of every detail involved in creating her Malibu dream manse.
What caught Tolins’ eye in particular were the sumptuous photographs of the imitation shops she’d created in the cellar of a barn on her estate. “Who has a mall in their basement?” he thought, incredulously. He did not see her efforts as just the eccentric whim of a pampered diva; he was moved by something childlike, even touching, about the mall: “The feeling of a little girl saying, ‘Look what I made, look what I’ve acquired, and how beautifully I can arrange my stuff,’ ” the playwright said.
He had the sense that the over-the-top display — a good deal of it Americana — represented Streisand’s declaration to all the world that she had overcome her impoverished and emotionally deprived childhood in Brooklyn. For Jewish women of a certain age and background, such a collection indicates “how important it was that they, too, have all the trimmings of the heirloom American experience,” Tablet magazine noted.
At some point while perusing photographs of Streisand’s mall, Tolins turned to his husband and quipped, “How’d you like to be the guy who has to work down there?”
“I [then] imagined a struggling actor getting hired to man the floor and greet the customer,” Tolins wrote in an essay in The New York Times. “What would the job entail? Would the lady of the house come down to shop like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess in her backyard at Versailles? ... How would he fall under Barbra’s spell, the way so many of us have for so long? How would they change each other?”
The result was, initially, a fictional short diary written by the employee, which was turned down for publication by The New Yorker but caught the eye of a friend, who suggested Tolins turn the concept into a one-man show. Tolins began reading biographies and watching television interviews with Streisand as he penned “Buyer & Cellar” — even as attorneys warned him that it would never be produced. The problem was Streisand’s famously litigious nature, and Tolins assumed theaters would not touch the play to avoid a lawsuit. “I thought I would just use it as a writing sample to help me get more work,” he said.
Enter David Van Asselt of Manhattan’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, who had encountered a lawyer’s protests over a previous production, “3C,” that allegedly borrowed too much from the 1970s sitcom “Three’s Company.“ “So David was actually ready for [another] fight,” Tolins said. “He was willing to take the risk.”
Turns out Streisand never did sue, nor has she yet seen “Buyer & Cellar,” although Tolins said he’s heard she’s asked friends whether the show is offensive. Their answers reportedly have been positive about the play, and so have the reviews, which have noted that it’s respectful of Streisand, Tolins said.
Not that it skirts around Streisand’s famous foibles — often petulantly noted by Alex’s jealous Jewish boyfriend, Barry — who rags on Streisand’s “sense of self-victimization — portraying herself as a victim when she has had a very blessed life,” Tolins said. And even Streisand herself “has been very open about being extremely what you could call controlling, or a perfectionist — tireless in pursuing her own vision,” he added.
In one sequence, inspired by the star’s real-life favorite doll, an automaton that blows bubbles, Streisand haggles to “buy” the antique as she recounts the true story of how her only doll as a girl was a hot water bottle that she lovingly carried around. “I’ve always been a little scared that I was going to get some kind of backlash saying that [scene] was an anti-Semitic portrayal, because [Barbra’s] so concerned about [prices], but … quite frankly, there are so many famous stories of Barbra haggling in antique shops around the country and in production with people she’s hired … that it’s just true to who she is. I think that’s often true of people who achieve great wealth after being poor as a child.”
Tolins has heard that Streisand may come to see “Buyer & Cellar” in Los Angeles, a prospect that has him “terrified,” he admitted. “Although I think the play honors her humor and her talent, there are a number of things, mostly voiced by Barry, that are critical of her work as a director or in some of her movies, and I think that would be tough for her to sit through,” he said. “I [worry] that she may shut down and not be able to see the more genuinely loving portrait of her that is in the play.”
“Buyer & Cellar” runs through Aug. 17.