Jonathan Tolins: 'I actually started to believe I worked in Barbra Streisand's basement mall'

The ”Buyer and Cellar” playwright talks about the inception of his critically acclaimed play

Jonathan Tolins, Michael Urie and Stephen Brackett at the after party on press night for Buyer and Cellar at the Menier Chocolate Factory
Jonathan Tolins, Michael Urie and Stephen Brackett at the after party on press night for Buyer and Cellar at the Menier Chocolate Factory
© Dan Wooller
Buyer and Cellar began with a joke. In 2010, my husband brought home a copy of the newly published My Passion for Design by Barbra Streisand from our local library. The two of us flipped through its impeccably art-directed pages in delight and awe. Like many others who stumbled upon this remarkable cultural artefact, we were particularly struck by the shopping mall in Barbra's basement, that street of shops built to store Barbra's vast collections of antiques, costumes, and assorted tchotchkes. (Yes, it really does exist.)

I said, "How'd you like to be the guy who works down there?" And thus Buyer & Cellar was born.

Well, almost. My first instinct was to write this silly idea as a short essay and submit it to The New Yorker magazine for one of their "Shouts & Murmurs" columns, which often use a bit of bizarre news or some pop culture oddity as a springboard. I thought this could be a perfect way to break into those hallowed pages.

'Having one actor play all the roles would prevent the piece from being merely a camp exercise''

They disagreed, (for the best, it turned out) but never one to let a decent joke go to waste, I shared the rejected essay on my blog (this was back when people had blogs). A friend of mine, a talent manager, suggested I write the story as a one-man show for one of his famous clients. As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. The mall was a perfect, surreal setting for a play, and having one actor play all the roles – not only the mall employee but also Barbra herself – would prevent the piece from being merely a camp exercise (not that there’s anything wrong with camp exercises).

I began my research. I studied My Passion for Design, taking note of every delicious detail. I read biographies and collected anecdotes from friends to add to the ones I already knew from a lifetime of grappling with the Streisand myth – her genius and her mishigas. I also drew on my own experience as a failed actor and aspiring writer in Los Angeles – the temp and assistant jobs, the seduction of the friendly boss, the sudden shift in mood when things start to go wrong. I thought about false utopian environments and about the death-defying urges of the passion-ate collector.

I was determined to write a play, not a sketch, one that would give an audience a full, satisfying experience. I wanted to have fun with the idea of Barbra as a character but always treat her as a real human being – somebody funny and vulnerable, an accomplished star but also a prisoner of her own fame and success.

And then, while I was writing the script, something magical happened. I actually started to believe that this crazy story was true, that I was Alex in the basement, enjoying my boss's company, feeling the thrill when she took my hand and led me further into her secret realm. I think the play's surprising success in the last two years has been due to the fact that people actually believed in the fantasy, because somehow I believed in it while writing.

'Friends of Barbra loved the play, though they weren’t sure she would.'

Of course, I have no way to know how accurate a portrait of the actual Barbra Streisand is presented in this play, although knowledgeable people have told me I got pretty close. These friends and colleagues of hers, who have all "been in the basement," as they're quick to point out, loved the play, though they weren’t sure she would.

To answer the question I’ve been asked most often: No, she has never seen it, as far as I know, though she has commented about it in the press. That’s fine with me; having her in the house could be exceedingly awkward. I do hope that if by some chance Barbra does encounter Buyer & Cellar, if curiosity gets the better of her, that she will take it in the spirit it was intended – as a loving portrait that plays fast and loose with reality to get at something like the truth. I do know that no matter what she would appreciate the splendid, loving work of Michael Urie, who originated the role of Alex More, and our director Stephen Brackett. The three of us, along with the entire production team, have had a marvelous time on this long adventure together, never losing our deep affection for these characters.

Having Buyer & Cellar at the Menier is a dream come true. Whether Barbra shows up or not.

Buyer and Cellar runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 2 May 2015. You can read our review of the show here and watch our interview with Michael Urie below.