Buyer & Cellar, the Off-Broadway play that is turning into one of the bigger successes of playwright Jonathan Tolins's career, started out as a script that he never expected to see the light of day.
"I had the feeling that no one would ever produce it, because they would be afraid they might get sued," says Tolins. The person Tolins thought might turn to litigation is music and movie icon Barbra Streisand.
The comedy — which recently transferred from the nonprofit Rattlestick Theater Company to a commercial run at the Barrow Street Theatre — imagines what life might be like for an employee in the shopping mall that Streisand has in the basement of her palatial Malibu home. Babs does indeed have a basement shopping mall, but no one works there.
"Halfway through, I let the lawyers read it," told Tolins. "There really was no case for someone to sue, but that wouldn't stop someone from suing. And the possibility that it could happen might prevent producers from doing it. But that was actually very liberating when I wrote it, because I thought this is going to be nothing more than a writing sample. So I really wrote it for myself, to be as funny as I could be. It was for me and my friends. I wasn't writing for the marketplace."
|photo by Sandra Coudert|
In the end, of course, that's not what happened. When Rattlestick suddenly had a play in their season fall out, the theatre called Tolins. "They sent me an e-mail and we were in rehearsal six weeks later," he remembers. Michael Urie, with whom Tolins has worked on the TV series "Partners," plays the fictional clerk. Tolins first got the idea for the play after reading some publicity for "My Passion for Design," a coffee table book about Streisand's home. He noticed — as many did — the odd detail about the personal mall.
"I made a joke to a friend, 'I'd like to meet the guy who works down there.' I then wrote a page and a half essay, a diary of a guy who gets the job. I sent it to the New Yorker, hoping it would get printed as a "Shouts & Murmurs" piece. They said no, but I had a blog at the time and put it online, and a friend of mine — who's actually a talent manager — said this could be a one-man show for a client of mine. I sat down and started writing it."
As glad as Tolins is with the unexpected success, he's still not sure he wants Streisand to see the play. "I'm very happy that much of the press has said that it's a loving portrait of her, because this is not about making fun of Barbra. Even so, I would be scared if she ever came to see it."