In Defense of Barbra Streisand, Michael Urie, and “Buyer & Cellar,” a One-Man Play by Jonathan Tolins

Dear Paul,
I have read your July 31, 2014 blog post, “In the Cellar,” which appears immediately below this rebuttal. Your review of Jonathan Tolins’ one-man play “Buyer & Cellar” is extremely well-written, erudite, funny in a self-deprecating way, utterly engaging and insightful, and I completely disagree with your premise and conclusions. I concur with your partner who liked the play, even though I have not seen it and have, therefore, no right to comment whatsoever. I hasten to add that just because I agree with him does NOT mean that HE will agree with ME after reading my reasons for liking the play without even having seen it. Here’s why I think I would have liked the play had I seen it:
“Camp” is almost exclusively a queer genre of humor: Oh, there is ironic and tongue-in-cheek humor in the straight world, as well as humor that lampoons cultural icons and sacred cows and cherished mores, but nobody does it like we gay boys, with such style in a single limp wrist, sibilant “s” or swished step, but with an evil twinkle in the eye. And yet it is done with equal measures of affection and condemnation, especially when the camp humor is directed at a beloved diva like Barbra Streisand. To my way of thinking, camp humor is a healthy way to bridge the gap between our incontrovertible status as “outsiders” in society, and our undeniable desire to somehow be part of it. Mock worship of celebrities and the very culture that excludes us in so many ways, is one method of forging our own kind of integration.

Barbra Streisand, from a mid-sixties photo shoot for the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine

Barbra Streisand, from a mid-sixties photo shoot for the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine

As it happens, the very day you guys were seeing “Buyer and Cellar,” starring Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame,) Robert and I were watching an extended version of the “Inside the Actor’s Studio” rare interview of Barbra Streisand by James Lipton. You see, we are among those gay longtime Barbra worshippers who adore her voice, her enormous creative talent as an actress and director, and her larger-than-life persona. We eat it up. Like so many gay fellows, we don’t just love her, we probably want to BE her, as some of us have tried to do. I disagree that it is because we all feel dreadfully insufficient internally, (although many of us certainly ARE…) but because we see icons like Streisand as accessible portals into the larger world — openings that we recognize, understand, and know how to navigate.
At the end of the interview on “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” as always the microphone was turned over to the guest so that she could interact directly with the students. One graduate student, a playwright, said to Ms. Streisand something like, “I have adored you all my life and your work inspires my own creative efforts. I am a gay man. I know other gay men who feel as I do. Why do you think so many gay men are inspired by you?” Barbra paused to think and replied, “It’s because I am so different from the rest of the world, and yet I made it. I am successful.” She came up completely outside the system and thumbed her nose at it even as she tried to get in. She has always been very controversial and despised by many, and yet she is enormously successful. Why wouldn’t every creative gay man identify with her?
Human beings seek gods, kings, and queens: We hold within our DNA I suspect, archetypes of the great, powerful, benevolent, true, honest, just leaders, kings, queens and gods that we know we will one day become in some future incarnation. Until we achieve that lofty level of self-realization and, yes, internal sufficiency, we seek role models who can show us the way. But I don’t think this mentor/follower process is so much about insufficiency — that “looming lacuna” of which you write — as it is simply the way all sentient beings learn anything.

Part of that learning process involves following false prophets, silly celebrities, corrupt kings, and visionless leaders, and learning to discriminate between a real god and a false god. Once we get that right we are ready to become gods. Until then, we need graven images and icons and manifestations of divinity in form to worship.

We can be quite sure that Streisand is a flawed mirror of The Divine Mother. But she IS a mirror, nevertheless, just as all of us are. She is particularly good at demonstrating creativity, courage in the face of fire, commitment and perseverance, and most uniquely, Sundara (Glorious Beauty) formed with very imperfect initial material — a strange face, dough-like body, and nasal voice. Yet she achieves it!

2011 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Barbra Streisand

2011 MusiCares Person of the Year Tribute to Barbra Streisand

Role playing as satire: This seems to be the methodology of “Buyer & Cellar” as you describe the play. The very premise that Streisand has constructed a fake shopping mall under her barn is the best example. What a great way to make a satirical statement about our cultural addiction to shopping (an activity that I personally abhor.) And it would seem that the actor does nothing but play various roles in a way that makes a satirical statement about the stereotypes portrayed. I haven’t seen the play, but I’ll almost guarantee that Barbra Streisand herself is reduced to a cliché stereotype of her superstar persona — a construct that may have very little to do with who she really is. And, as you describe the persona of Barry the boyfriend, his character sounds like a stereotype of the effeminate gay man — a type for which I have always felt great affection. The structure of the play sounds to me like a very ingenious way to weave a complex fabric of commentary about the obsessions, likes, dislikes, and bizarre behaviors of most of the members of our particular culture, employing the warp and woof of stereotypical characters revealed in a camp, satirical comedy.

A recent portrait of Barbra Streisand for "Ted Talks"

A recent portrait of Barbra Streisand for “Ted Talks”

“Cutism” as a legitimate artistic genre: As an artist myself, currently delving deeply into what I call “Cutism” as a legitimate aesthetic genre, I am now seeing examples of it all around me, and coming to realize that many artists have been working for years in this “style” with tongue firmly planted in cheek, and without sacrificing any aesthetic rigor or excellence, by the way. It could be argued that the complete oeuvres of Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, Wes Anderson, and Steve Martin (to mention just a few artists) are deliberately saccharine, satirical “Cutist” outpourings.

We recently watched the decidedly “Cutist” movie, “Evan Almighty,” — a powerful environmental statement about the coming apocalypse due to climate change and abuse of the planet, hidden within a high-budget commercial comedy. “Evan Almighty” is loosely based on the Biblical story of Noah. Steve Carell plays Evan, the new Noah, and Morgan Freeman plays God, responding to politician Evan’s prayer asking for help in changing the world. I had seen it before and thought it was cute and fun, but this time, especially after we watched the “bonus features” in which the director made no bones about his intentions, it seemed really profound to me. Some of us artists have decided to try to find ways to make these difficult or unpalatable statements more accessible to the masses. If we have to adopt cloyingly cute forms to accomplish that end, then so be it.
Well… There you have it. I’ve said my piece, and I fear it may be longer than your original post! So sorry, but your very well-written review of a play that I have not even seen, propelled me right onto my soap box. I’ll get down now and shut up. But I sure do wish that Robert and I could have joined you guys on the opposite coast at the Mark Taper Forum and then discussed the play over margaritas and Mexican dinner afterward. In lieu of that pleasure, thank you so much for your very stimulating review and this fun discussion.
Love, – Kevin


By Paul

Usually, my partner and I are in agreement about the plays we see. In fact, we go to quite a number of them up in Los Angeles, but the one we saw this past Saturday at the Mark Taper Forum was something of an exception.

What was on view was Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” a one-man play starring Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame). It’s a fantasy, based on the idea that this gay guy, a struggling actor played by the energetic and talented Urie, can’t find much work these days, and even gets fired for a misstep while playing a character in Disneyland. As any such down-on-his-luck actor might do, he grabs at a job that comes his way playing a fake salesman in Barbra Streisand’s make-believe mall-in-a-cellar. Alex, the erstwhile actor cum salesman cum actor again, “sells” stuff to Ms. Streisand that she already owns and has accumulated over years of inconspicuous consumption (this stuff is, after all, actually hidden away in the basement “mall” of the barn house on her Malibu estate). The fantasy Streisand comes to the cellar periodically, looking to pick up a bargain, and in the process lots of things happen between salesman Alex and buyer Barbra. The idea is that we are supposed to get a glimpse into the humanity and vulnerability, as well as the occasional manipulative craziness, of the lady of the house.

I have to admit that the audience howled at all of the one-liners between Urie/Alex and Urie/Streisand, as well as between Alex and Urie/Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, who admits to being something of a Streisand addict (like so many other gay men, supposedly). So, I was definitely the odd-man-out in this bunch, since I hardly snickered at all of this stuff, which I found a little over the top and, in the end, not all that interesting.

So, why did my partner like the play, and I didn’t? After all, he has training in theater in the form of a bachelor’s degree in the subject from UC Irvine, as well as having acted himself, designed sets and lighting for a number of plays, his knowledge of theater history is far greater than mine, and his judgment of both drama and comedy is usually impeccable. So, why the disagreement, I had to ask myself? I’m still not exactly sure, but here are a few random thoughts.

The whole play seemed to me a little overdone in a kind of clichéd gay way. Alex was a likeable enough kind of guy and, I have to admit, in the past I’ve known people not too dissimilar from him. At the beginning of the play, he even admits to not being much of a Streisand fan, a thing that I can very much identify with. I’m not trying to deny that she has a lot of talent, mind you, and she was of course wonderful in “Funny Girl,” but let’s just say that her voice – I don’t know how else to put it – somehow doesn’t register with my register. However, it’s clear that during the course of the play, Alex begins to buy into it, and gets swept up in the worship of Ms. Streisand, to the point that he begins to go a little gaga whenever the bell attached to the “shop door” rings at the top of the stairs, announcing her descent into the unconscious realm of the dreamland-mall-in-a cellar. In addition, Urie-as-Barry, Alex’s boyfriend, does occasionally come across as, well, a little too much in a stereotypic, flaming sort of way, prompting me to wonder what, in fact, it was exactly that Alex saw in Barry. Nothing that I found very attractive, anyway.

Still, as my partner has pointed out to me, I seem to have no trouble watching the British sit-com “Vicious” (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, playing an equally overdone, clichéd old gay couple, who speak to each other in the most vicious way, although, underneath it all, they do still care for each other). I even laugh at some of the antics portrayed therein, although not so much at the really nasty turns the dialog sometimes takes. And I can’t fully explain why I accept one, but reject the other. I’ve been told it’s because I’m an Anglophile, and that I like anything and anybody with a fancy British accent, but I don’t think that’s the case (and my Irish ancestors would be rolling over in their collective graves, if it were).

The bigger question as to what I found objectionable in “Buyer & Cellar” has to do with the adulation we in this country have for celebrities. Does that mean that I’m just envious of them? Do we, that is, those of us who are not rich and famous, simply want to have the experience of that kind of stardom? I really don’t think so. I have to wonder why anyone would ever want thousands, maybe even millions, of people to be able to recognize who they are in the street, or in a grocery store. And do celebrities even go grocery shopping? Probably not, I suppose. As much as there are those who insist that this is all just sour grapes, I actually do like the anonymity I have of nobody knowing who I am. We spent almost three weeks in Europe a few months ago, for example, and not a single person there recognized us. Who would want every other passerby on the street stopping you and asking if you’re that famous so-and-so whom they saw in whatever movie that was out last year? That doesn’t sound like fun to me.

And ought we to dig even deeper? Are there other reasons why so many in this country, and throughout the world, almost worship stars, whether they be actors, athletes, or whoever’s face has appeared endless times, “bigger than life,” on countless movie screens? Maybe it has something to do with a kind of emptiness people feel within, an unspoken dread that who they are is somehow “not enough”? I’m not suggesting that most people think this consciously. Probably very few people go about saying to themselves: “Well, I’m just not enough!” But at an unconscious level, that may be exactly what we think. We feel as though there is a hole, a lacking, a looming lacuna somewhere within, and we want, we need, to fill it. And how better to fill it safely (that is, without drugs or alcohol) than somehow imagining ourselves in the role of a fantasy movie star, to whom we attribute a “dream life” of untold fame, endless riches, the adulation of the world, and the fulfillment of every desire we have ever imagined for ourselves? The unspoken message, subtle but enormously powerful, is a simple one: “If I were he/she, if I had his/her wealth, talent, and fame, then everyone would love me, and I would be happy forever in a world without woe.” That said, one thing I did find interesting about “Buyer & Cellar” was the suggestion that even this great “lady of the house” does not experience such material and cultural success as truly enough.

I won’t tell you the ending of the play, although I’m guessing it wouldn’t be all that difficult for you to figure out. Suffice it to say that Alex learns something about himself, and that is a good thing. And although the journey there wasn’t one that I found all that compelling, in this case, I’m willing to admit that I may have been the one whose insight was lacking. After all, the theme of not buying into celebrity notoriety as a substitute for personal fulfillment in our own lives is a laudable one. And maybe, as he so often is, my partner was right after all. Maybe if Alex had only spoken with one of those lovely British accents, I’d have found the whole thing uproariously funny, witty beyond measure, and utterly engaging. Yes, that may well be the case. And if it is, heaven help me for that! May my ancestors back in the old sod forgive me for this kind of silly, and in the end, oh-so-unfulfilling adulation.