The Arty Semite

Working in Barbra Streisand's Private Mall

By Curt Schleier

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Jonathan Tolin’s hilarious and at times poignant comedy, “Buyer and Cellar,” has received rapturous reviews. It recently moved into the Barrow Street Theater in Greenwich Village, where it continues to play to sold-out crowds.

Courtesy Jonathan Tolins

The idea for the show sprang from Barbra Streisand’s coffee table book, “My Passion for Design.” A self-aggrandizing tribute to her taste, it recounts how she created her Malibu estate, including a private mini-mall built to house her acquisitions in the basement of a barn. There are several stores there, including one for dolls, one for antique clothing and even a “gift shoppe.”

Until now, Tolins was best known for “Twilight of the Golds,” about a Jewish family wrestling with a “gay” problem. When genetic testing indicates a daughter is pregnant with a child likely to be gay, the family, including a gay son, debates the next step. It ran briefly on Broadway, had numerous productions around the world, and was turned into a Showtime movie.

Tolins spoke to The Arty Semite about how his new play came about, the time he met Barbra and how his own parents dealt with his coming out.

Curt Schleier: How did “My Passion for Design” become the basis of your play?

Jonathan Tolins: I started thinking, how would you like to be the guy who works down there? A friend suggested I wrote it as a one-man show. I’d never done that before and the idea just tickled me. I just thought it would be really funny and interesting and give me a chance to write about things I cared about: money and show business, how people with a lot of money spend their time, and about uneven relationships where both parties have a lot of power. The idea wouldn’t go away. I did a lot of reading and thinking about it until the situation became so real to me I could write about it as if it actually happened.

The brilliant Michael Urie (TV’s “Ugly Betty”) plays Alex More, the actor employed to maintain the mini-mall. In fact, he plays all the roles, including Barbra. It is a simple one-hander. Uproarious. Great reviews. Why isn’t this on Broadway?

That’s really a producer’s question. It boils down to money, and while Michael is a known TV performer, he is not the kind of big star who guarantees a run on Broadway.

That’s a little sad.

It is kind of sad. Another thing that has something to do with it is that we weren’t reviewed in The New York Times by one of the top two critics. Has we gotten a major review in the paper from one of the top critics it might have been different.

In the play, you mention that Streisand has a tendency to be litigious. Are you waiting for a cease and desist order?

I think she’s mellowed, judging by recent interviews and concert appearances. I think if she were able to sit and watch the whole thing from beginning to end she would realize it is a loving portrait. But there are things in the beginning that would make that impossible. I actually wouldn’t want her to see it [because if she got up in the middle and left] I would feel bad about it. I would like her to hear about the play from friends and I think she has.

In the play, Urie mentions that you met Barbra once. Is that true?

She came to see “Twilight of the Golds” at the Pasadena Playhouse. She was considering optioning the movie rights and she offered me a piece of her Kit Kat bar. I didn’t take it because I was afraid I would make a mess. Ironically, years later her son, Jason Gould, played the leading role [of the gay brother] in “Twilight of the Golds” in London and I spent some time with him.

Was there any concern in your mind that this could wind up a gay cliché?

No, because I’m writing the truth as I see it. The family in “Twilight of the Golds” was a cliched Jewish family. But that was my family and I can’t help it. All a playwright can do is write as truthfully as possible.

You mention your family. How did they take it when you came out?

There were some difficult moments, I’ll tell you. Writing that play not only gave me a career, but it healed my family. Very few things top having a play on Broadway when it comes to healing. I came out in my senior year of college. It was not that easy. There was mostly denial at first. But I was a lucky kid. There was never the slightest question in my mind that my parents would ultimately support me. I wasn’t one of those kids whose parents turned their back on them or kicked them out of the house. I was being a little tongue in cheek before when I said the play’s success was the reason [we healed]. Seeing the play and my being able to express my feelings, after that all the walls broke down.

Can you tell me a little about your Jewish upbringing?

I was raised Conservative, I attended Temple Beth Sholom on Long Island. I was bar mitzvahed and graduated from Hebrew high school. We were mostly High Holiday Jews. We were a little above High Holiday Jews. I had a good religious education and when my niece was a bat mitzvah I read from the Torah.

Has any of that impacted your career?

I think certainly the Jewish tradition of argument and articulating things exactly as you want them to be, and also seeing things from both sides is very close to the job of being a dramatist. It has definitely informed my playwriting. Also, I wouldn’t be the writer I am without a Jewish sense of humor.

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