Tchotchkes from the underground

by Tom Lee

When Jonathan Tolins '88 was an undergraduate at Harvard, he enrolled in a playwriting seminar taught by the late William Alfred, a beloved professor of dramatic literature and poetry. "One week he told us to bring in a story from the newspaper and tell the class why we picked it and how it made us feel," he recalls. "He then said, 'These are the things you have to write about.' It was a great lesson because it helped sharpen my sense of what elicits an emotional and intellectual response in me, which I think is a good barometer for whether or not a subject is worth exploring."

That barometer has served Tolins well: His play The Twilight of the Golds opened on Broadway five years after his graduation and was adapted for the screen starring Faye Dunaway; off-Broadway and regionally he has earned acclaim for his plays If Memory Serves, The Last Sunday in June and Secrets of the Trade. He has written for film and TV, as well as special material for the 2000 and 2002 Academy Awards, the 2003 Tony Awards starring Hugh Jackman and concerts featuring Bette Midler.

Tolins's latest play, Buyer & Cellar, has become this season's sleeper hit off-Broadway, opening at the Rattlestick Theater to rave reviews and soon to transfer to the larger Barrow Street Theater. It's a solo piece starring Michael Urie (late of ABC's Ugly Betty) as a struggling gay actor hired to be a caretaker for the memorabilia, costumes and tchotchkes of superstar Barbra Streisand, who has housed this treasure trove in a faux arcade of shops in a basement on her Malibu estate. Inspired by Streisand's coffee table book My Passion for Design, which recounts the architecture, construction and outfitting of the estate in endless detail, Tolins's satirical yet affectionate script has one hilarious line after another, energetically delivered by the very winning Urie.

The Harvard Arts Blog caught up with Tolins recently to ask about Buyer & Cellar's unusual premise; what Streisand fans think of the play; how he incorporates humor into his work; his time at Harvard; and the best advice for aspiring writers.

During a brief prelude to the main story of Buyer & Cellar, the actor Michael Urie tells the audience that the play is a work of fiction, though the playwright did meet Barbra Streisand. Did you indeed meet her, and what was the encounter like?

The one time I met her was at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1993. She came to see a performance of The Twilight of the Golds because she was considering buying the film rights. It was a brief conversation. She complimented the play, which she had already read, and offered me a piece of her candy bar. Of course, the theater was electric that night, with everyone wondering what she thought. I didn't see her after the show. In the end, the film rights were bought by others and I never met her again, although her son Jason Gould starred in a production of Twilight in London a few years later. I liked him very much.

As you started writing the play, were you concerned about how Streisand might react to your depiction of her? What has been the feedback from her fans? Any feedback from the icon herself?

I felt very free while writing the script because part of me doubted any producer would have the guts to put the play on and face the wrath of a litigious star. So I just wrote it for me. I didn’t worry too much about "pulling punches," but my intention was never to mock her. I saw the play as a flight of imagination based on some of the bizarre details in My Passion for Design. I wasn’t writing about the actual Streisand but the myth of Barbra, the way I imagine her to be.

Her fans seem to love the play. I think they appreciate the research I did and that so many of the details are true and come from her history. We haven’t heard from Barbra directly but we do know that people close to her have talked to her about the play and, fortunately, told her that it is a sympathetic and loving portrait. That said, I don’t know if I could handle her coming to see it. I think I’d be too afraid.

When writing a play, do you feel that you have to rein in the impulse to shower the audience with great one-liners? Are you comfortable letting the humor grow more organically out of the characters and story?

This may be hard to believe, but with rare exceptions, I never think about writing "jokes." I just try to explore a funny situation as truthfully as possible. I think I have a good ear and sense of humor and know how to get a laugh, which I enjoy doing, but moments have to be grounded in character and the situation to really work.

How did your experience at Harvard prepare you for a writing career? Were there any notable influences or sources for stories, characters, jokes?

Perhaps the most valuable tool I got at Harvard was some healthy arrogance. A little arrogance is necessary if you want to do this. Writing is hard and the writer’s career is filled with rejection and failure. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that your work is worth other people’s time. You need a thick skin and the arrogance to believe that what you have to say is worthy of other people’s attention. The mystique of Harvard helps you build that necessary sense of entitlement. I also feel like I honed my verbal, debate, and communication skills at every dining hall meal, facing off with incredibly bright, impatient, and opinionated classmates with different backgrounds than mine. I’m very grateful for that.

What advice would you give to aspiring playwrights and screenwriters?

The success of Buyer & Cellar has been a lovely surprise, especially because I wrote it to please myself, without concern for "the marketplace." As I said, I really didn’t expect to ever see it onstage. And now it is the most widely appreciated and applauded work of my career. There’s a clear lesson there for younger writers. Write for yourself. Burrow in and write in your purest voice, the one that most fully expresses who you are and what you think. Delight yourself. That is the voice people are waiting for. And that freshness and singularity of your talent will open doors.

Buyer & Cellar reopens at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. in New York's West Village, on June 18. Visit the website or call 212.868.4444 for more information and tickets.

[Caption: Playwright Jonathan Tolins.]

[Caption: Michael Urie in "Buyer & Cellar" PHOTO: Sandra Coudert]