Nothing is trickier than telling a compelling story about a famous living, or recently alive, person and intending it as a fiction.
Even beyond the potential for litigation, one will run up against those who know the person in question and have their own opinions. (Witness Alan Alda playing Richard Feynman for a host of Caltech grads, poor man.)
And if the person in question is an iconic figure for a particular societal group, it just gets stickier.
None of which deterred playwright Jonathan Tolins from creating one of the funniest things on stage this summer: “Buyer & Cellar,” now at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles fresh from a riotously successful New York run.
Essentially a long, uninterrupted monologue by the articulate physical comedian Michael Urie, “Buyer & Cellar” uses as its spin-off a very real book published by the very real Barbra Streisand.
The book, titled “My Passion for Design,” details all the many elements of her Malibu retreat, including the collection of mock 19th century stores developed along a “street” in her basement to house her various collections. What, Tolins wondered, would happen if someone was hired to be the storekeeper down there?
And so, in the character of that employee, one Alex More — an out-of-work gay actor getting a chance at a weird connection with a stereotypical goddess of the gay community — we hear the completely fictional story of why a person would take such a gig, and what bizarre, wonderful and wrenching things that decision brings into his life.
The comedy is wry, but often fall-out-of-your chair funny. The insights into the isolation of fame, and into a once-poor young woman's obsession with amassing goods, are sharp and interesting.
The awkward balance of confidant, servant and compatriot required of Alex's job, and the toll they take on his outer life, keep it grounded. But mostly what you remember is complete delight.
Tolins' script has that fast-paced “let me tell you a story in one breath” intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Urie's equally breakneck delivery, and the sheer visibility of the two other characters he “creates” to interact with Alex (Streisand, and Alex's Brooklyn-born boyfriend) prove compelling watching. Indeed, one is startled when the roughly 100 minutes are up. (The show is performed without an intermission.)
Director Stephen Brackett brings a wonderful physical dimension to a piece that needs that vitality to bolster the volume of words. Some of the visual moments are among the funniest. Andrew Boyce's simple set lets the story tell itself, while Jessica Pabst's costuming — most particularly a rather voluminous cardigan — help enhance Urie's changes of character.
Yet, in the end, it is all Urie and Tolins: the first with his talent, his ability to twist himself into different body shapes, and his overarching charm, the other with a near-perfect script for Urie to work with.
It is interesting that, at the show's start, great pains are taken to make sure everyone knows that the story and characterizations are pure fiction, even if Streisand's book is not. Perhaps that was potential litigation rearing its ugly head. Even so, it doesn't need to be real to be a treat.
As a matter of fact, it takes the pressure off to know it's all made up, even if one couldn't help but wish at some points that it is something that really happened.
For more of Frances Baum Nicholson's reviews, go to her blog: www.stagestruckreview.com