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Jonathan Tolins, the Weird and Wonderful Playwright Who Transformed Barbra's Passion

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I'm a funny lady, which means I arrive at all touted-as-sidesplitting events with a chip on the shoulder of my funny bone. The only test for admission into my personal comedy pantheon is to make me LMAO the nth time around, like The Producers, The Importance of Being Earnest, Some Like it Hot and Where's Shorty do by revealing fresh, previously overlooked layers of hilarity with each new viewing. My latest entry to this well-worth-seeing-again listing? Jonathan Tolins extended Off-Broadway hit, Buyer and Cellar. I've seen it once, read it once, laughed at different places and I plan to see it again ASAP.

Playwright Jonathan Tolins' comedic gem has, in addition, supplied me with a new definition of genius -- an artist who can transform the most narcissistic book ever written into a comic masterpiece. How narcissistic? The author refers to herself 30 times during the first page of the introduction which seems excessive even for a self-promoting diva who requires only her given name for recognition and eschews the third A normally found in it.

In contrast, playwright Jonathan Tolins is a man of mystery with (gasp!) nary a single page bearing his name in Wikipedia. Compare that to Barbra's 27 -- more than Wikipedia has bestowed on either FDR or J. Edgar Hoover.

Barbra and Jon were both born in Brooklyn, but Tolins moved to Long Island when he was three, had a happy childhood, lived in a good neighborhood with good schools and a close proximity to Manhattan. Jon was bitten by the theater bug at a young age and also became an opera fanatic because he started going to the opera with his dad as a kid. After graduation from Harvard, Jon moved to LA, where he'd been offered a summer job supplying questions for a game show. He remained there longer when The Climate, a five-character play he wrote and in which he played all the male characters, enjoyed a seven-month run at Theater Theater, and brought him movie and TV work.

Buyer and Cellar is an intriguing, sly fantasy inspired by Jon's two meets with Barbra. The first, in the flesh, occurred at a performance of one his early plays where Barbra offered him a hunk of her Kit Kat bar and almost bought the movie rights. Their second more-hands-off encounter arose via Jon's acquisition of the diva's coffee table tome, My Passion for Design, which depicts Barbra's nail-by-nail, brick-by-brick, plank-by-plank million-by-million creation of her own personal home sweet home: a Malibu meld of Nantucket, Vermont and Versailles with a basement transformed into a street of country shops, inspired by those in the DuPont Winterthur Museum.

There's a doll shop; an antique shop; an antique clothes shop; a gift shop, a sweet shop with a frozen yogurt dispenser, sprinkles and popcorn machine. The shops display everything Barbra wanted to retain but for which she found no room in her mill-cum-mansion closets. The street of shops is where most of Buyer and Cellar takes place.

The five-character play's leading lady? Need you ask?

Its leading man, Alex More, is a gay actor who worked at Disneyland until he threatened to shove a churro up a wiseass kid's ass and got fired. A feeling-guilty-about-firing-Alex, Disney Human Relations manager remembered Alex had retail experience at Banana Republic and suggested Alex for the post of manning the shops in the basement of Barbra's palazzo. Acting skills were also required. Alex had to pretend the lady of the house was an ordinary yenta nobody and bargain with her about the price of her own possessions.

All five characters, including Alex's Jewish boyfriend Barry, are endearingly and brilliantly performed by the singularly amazing Michael Urie. He doesn't do an impression or imitate Barbra. He becomes Barbara. He presents her as a holding-on-to-middle-age, bossy, manipulative, designing in every way, Jewish Bubba who moves like the Old Woman with one buttock in Candide.

Michael Urie is Tolins' favorite actor. "He really gets my stuff." Michael is also one of mine.

In 1993, The Twilight of the Golds, an earlier play written by Jon, finally made its way up to Broadway flopperoo, doomed to play only 29 performance by a devastating Ben Brantley New York Times review. Imagine Jon's delight at reading Brantley's declarations of love - note the plural -- for Buyer and Cellar this summer.

"I feel like he's supplied the bookends of my career."

Buyer and Cellar took six months to write, was almost instantly produced and sold out its extended run at off-off Broadway's Rattlesnake Theater before quickly moving to Off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theater. "Success is sweetest when it arrives unexpectedly, hasn't required you to make artistic sacrifices, and is totally fortuitous. Buyer and Cellar seems to have written itself."

So is Jon happy?" "It would be in poor taste for me to complain about anything right now," Jon admits.

At least for for the moment.

Michael Urie will be playing the buyer and seller et al until January, 2014. Seeing him is a must for anyone with a mean streak and a sense of humor. You can also feed your mean streak by buying Barbra's book, A Passion for Design, a passion which in my opinion is totally unrequited.