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By MARK PEIKERT
Having collected so much stuff in such staggering quantities, Barbra Streisand had a shopping center constructed in her basement. In the interest of increased verisimilitude, she hired an actor to play a store clerk.
Only one of those statements is false.
Streisand actually did build a mall below her Malibu mansion, as she detailed in her book My Passion for Design, but the actor sitting down there and waiting for La Streisand to come browsing is the brainchild of playwright Jonathan Tolins in his hit Off-Broadway play Buyer & Cellar. Starring Michael Urie in a tour-de-force turn that recently won him a Drama Desk Award for outstanding solo performance, the show has transferred from the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre to the Barrow Street Theatre.
For legal reasons, the production team was unable to advertise its slightly skewed take on Streisand's reality, but word of mouth (and rave reviews) quickly turned Buyer & Cellar into the spring's buzziest hit. But though the premise has been widely discussed in the media, Urie's first moments on stage are as himself, introducing audiences to My Passion for Design. Only after assuring us that what follows is entirely fictional does he become a fictional actor named Alex, who gradually forms a friendship with Streisand that isn't destined to last.
"I needed the audience to get what the fiction was based on very clearly, because that's what makes it funny," Tolins says of his choice to open the show by breaking the fourth wall. "And I did feel I had to protect myself legally. When I originally wrote it, I was a little muddier about when the character slips into being Alex. But Michael is a very specific actor and wanted to know exactly when he was Michael and when he was Alex."
Urie was actually on board before director Stephen Brackett had been hired, having previously worked with Tolins on the short-lived CBS sitcom Partners. Between the first rehearsal and the first preview, much of the work done in the rehearsal room involved cutting the script---"It was about nine pages longer," Tolins says---and tailoring some of the dialogue for Urie.
And though Urie plays Alex recreating conversations with multiple off-stage characters, he never goes near a Streisand impression. Instead, he uses body language and a slight Brooklyn accent to great effect.
"I didn't want it to feel like a night at the Duplex," Tolins says. "This is an imaginary Barbra, what she might be like at this house. And he does do a decent Barbra, but the pressure is not on him because we say at the very beginning that he's not going to do Barbra."
Avoiding impersonations also marks the play as something more than just an evening for Streisand fans. One could love Buyer & Cellar without ever having seen a Streisand film, though of course it would help.
"Part of me was convinced that no producer would be willing to put up this play and risk Barbra Streisand suing them," Tolins says, adding that he treated it as a writing exercise just for himself. Hence, obscure jokes are heavily sprinkled throughout, though never to a degree that leaves anyone excluded. "I am aware when I'm writing not to put too much pressure on an arcane reference," he says. "You can have a reference as long as it doesn't leave the people who don't get it out in the cold."
Tolins points to a throwaway line of Alex's, in which he describes his entrance to Streisand's house as "up a circular and very narrow stairway." Anyone who doesn't know that's a lyric in A Chorus Line won't notice, but, as Tolins says, "the people who do get those things will love the play even more."
Mark Peikert is Senior Editor at Backstage
Photo by Sandra Coudert