On the Beat

On the Beat

Scenes from a mall, Streisand-style.

On the Beat lg 1113
Streisand in My Name Is Barbra, her first TV special, in 1965
Photofest

IT LOOKS AS IF JONATHAN TOLINS's comedy Buyer & Cellar, one of last season's big off-Broadway hits at the Rattlestick Theater, may have a long and happy life ahead. It just concluded a second, successful engagement at New York's Barrow Street Theatre; there are plans for a tour of some major cities, with the show's original star, MICHAEL URIE, and possibly even a TV version; and you can bet that this inexpensive, one-actor play will be popping up in regional and community theaters as often as Forty Carats and Butterflies are Free did back in the 1970s. I use those two titles as touchstones, because Buyer & Cellar has some of the same reassuring qualities that those vintage boulevard comedies had. Tolins's plays (The Last Sunday in June, Twilight of the Golds) are like smartly designed clocks — they are well made in a good way, and if they don't shake us up or enlarge our world view, we can certainly admire their fine craftsmanship. 

In Buyer & Cellar, Tolins taps into our voracious culture of diva-worshippers. The play is about a young underemployed actor, Alex (played by Urie), who answers a rather strange "Help Wanted" call — for a shopkeeper to oversee the elaborate shopping mall that BARBRA STREISAND keeps in the basement of her barn on her secluded Malibu property. It's a special shopping mall, of course — not one open to the public but one that she has created to house the treasure trove of collectibles she has been gathering for decades. (Even during her early days on the New York stage, Streisand was known for being an avid 
collector.) 

The play follows Alex, a sort of medium-cool Streisand fan at the beginning, as he falls under her spell, a development that derails his relationship with his Barbra-hating boyfriend, Barry. Much of this is amusing — the kind of comedy designed to resonate with the show's middle-aged gay audience, much as NEIL SIMON's '60s comedies about the pains of urban life were rigged to appeal to in-the-know suburban theatergoers. (Tolins's play is guilty of pandering to the Barbra-ites in the audience.) But the most arresting part of Buyer & Cellar is the portrayal of Streisand herself as a classic diva living in relative isolation (here, Malibu serves as a counterpart to Garbo's East Side Manhattan and Callas's Paris), making her way slowly out of her hole, beginning to feel that Alex is someone she might actually be able to trust — or maybe use, or both. Urie, who settles down after an almost alarmingly manic opening, deftly impersonates all three characters, Alex, Barry and Barbra. 

All of this, of course, is pure fiction. Tolins got his idea for the play after reading Streisand's coffee-table book My Passion for Design, published by Viking in 2010. Tolins's sympathetic take on the Streisand mystique is definitely what lingers with you long after all the snappy lines have faded. "I think that ultimately it is a warm portrayal of her," Tolins said recently in a phone interview. Tolins was a fan for years, and then he wasn't. "I was crazy about the first Greatest Hits album," he says. "The sheer vocal level of early Barbra is phenomenal. I don't like that much middle and late.  

"There were things I was nervous about while writing it. I was very careful when writing anything about her relationship with her son Jason, because I didn't want to mis-characterize it. What was also important to me is that she's a megastar and also a Jewish lady from Brooklyn. And what's poignant is her need to control everything. She has a vision, and she expects everyone to adhere to that vision, even though they may not know what it is. It's like being a bad boss — why can't you read my mind? She has that divalike impatience — why can't it be what I want, even if I can't express what I want?"

This drive to make the rest of us conform to her way of seeing things is part of what being a diva is all about. Growing up, I had pretty much the same history with Streisand that Tolins did: I was dazzled by her showmanship in the film of Funny Girl, bowled over by the vocal magic she brought to a dented vehicle such as On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, found her nothing short of a comic genius in The Owl and the Pussycat. I liked a lot of her early rock-accented efforts, such as Stoney End, but as I got older and, I thought, smarter, I threw her over for JONI MITCHELL and LAURA NYRO. Streisand seemed to me a great singer of standards who seemed to be pandering to popular trends in the later genres she delved into. Recently, I've listened to a lot of her recordings for the first time in years. Just one example, via YouTube — her medley of BURT BACHARACH's "One Less Bell to Answer" and "A House is Not a Home" — proves singlehandedly that, for sheer vocalism, no pop singer of her time can touch her.

Ultimately, Streisand is an inspiring figure to Tolins, and one he continues to ponder in all kinds of ways. When I asked him which of her movies intrigued him the most, his answer was surprising: "In an ironic way, The Mirror Has Two Faces," he says. "It's a fascinating movie. LIBBY GELMAN WAXNER wrote the classic review of that movie in which she said it's like Sunset Boulevard as directed by Norma Desmond. It's an extremely revealing and interesting portrait of her." spacer

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10