Coffee Talk: At Home With Jonathan Tolins & Robert Cary

8.2.2013

By Aaron Hicklin

Borrowing from Babs is second nature for this creative couple.

Illustration by Pablo Lobato

Jonathan Tolins is rifling through his enormous CD collection in the spacious Fairfield, Conn., home he shares with his husband, Robert Cary, and their two adopted children. The collection is arranged alphabetically — classical albums by composer; pop by musician.

“Here’s Classical Barbra,” he says, sliding a CD out of the shelf. (Despite the title, it is archived with pop.)

“For $2.99,” interjects Cary, fluttering a hand at the faded price sticker.

Tolins pulls out another — Color Me Barbra. “This is the one I listened to in college all the time,” he says. “But the truth is that I listen a lot more to Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, because once you get past the early years, well — let’s say she went with the times, and the times aren’t always timeless.”

“The way I feel about Barbra…” ventures Cary, head cocked. “I don’t love, love, love her, but when she dies I will weep, because she feels like someone who is so much a part of my sense of being gay, of being in this world.” He pauses. “But at the same time, she feels like a relative that I’m openly irritated with at times.”

It’s not unusual to hear gay men discuss the oeuvre and legacy of Barbra Streisand. What is unusual is to take all that chatter and speculation and turn it into a hit play, as Tolins has done. In Buyer & Cellar, currently running at Barrow Street Theatre in New York City, Streisand looms large, a distillation of everything we suspect our legends to be: imperious, needy, selfish, and all-too-human.

It took 14 years for Tolins to get his last play, Secrets of the Trade, to the Manhattan stage. Buyer & Cellar made the journey, from first draft to first performance, in seven months. There’s a good deal of serendipity in that, but what’s propelled the show’s success is the alchemy of three people: Tolins, who wrote the sparkling script; Michael Urie, who holds the stage with a brilliant one-man performance; and Barbra Streisand, around whose outsize personality the play orbits. Only two of those three are willing participants. Or, as Urie tells his audience at the beginning of the show, “What I’m going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”

Yet Tolins’s outlandish premise — an imaginary encounter between Streisand and a young out-of-work actor hired to manage a folksy mall of “shoppes” in the basement of her Malibu home — does not need to be true to feel true. Tolins was inspired by Streisand’s 2010 book, My Passion for Design, in which the diva takes readers on a journey through her sumptuous estate, including the mall beneath her barn which doubles as a repository for the vast amounts of stuff she has accumulated through life. In Buyer & Cellar, details gleaned from that book — a frozen yogurt maker, a French bubble-blowing doll — become central props in a witty meditation on the insecurity and loneliness of celebrity.

For Tolins, what makes the show work is Streisand’s personality. “What you’re laughing at is her need to control and to take herself so seriously,” he says. “You’re not laughing at someone who’s actually a mess and endangering her life — she’s funny because she wants everything her way.”

Buyer & Cellar is not Tolins’s first brush with Streisand. His play The Twilight of the Golds (later adapted for television) enjoyed a brief Broadway run in 1993, before transferring to London where it starred Streisand’s son, Jason Gould. “I liked him a lot, he did a good job in the play, and I met Elliott Gould,” says Tolins. “But as far as I know, Barbra never came, probably because there were paparazzi outside every night.”

We are standing in the bedroom of their 3-year-old adopted son, Henry. The wallpaper is patterned with Chinese pagodas.

“One of Henry’s favorite things to do is to act out the magic fire scene from Die Walk├╝re,” says Tolins.

Cary cutely pulls out his iPhone to show a photo of Henry accessorized with cane and top hat, in imitation of his unlikely idol, Fred Astaire. “If you think a 3-year-old knowing who June Allyson is might be a sign they have gay parents, then Henry’s that 3-year-old,” he says proudly.

Tolins and Cary moved to colonial-era Fairfield from Los Angeles four years ago when they realized they wanted a second child. Their first, Selina, now 9, was adopted at the age of 3. “People ask, ‘Why do you live in Connecticut?’ ” says Tolins. “And I say, ‘I go to Starbucks and I’m the only person writing a screenplay.’ I’m not a big L.A. basher, but it’s such a company town—you’re so aware of what everyone else is doing.”

We move on to Selina’s room, a study in pink. “It reminds me of Debra Winger’s room in Terms of Endearment, when things are going well, listening to South Pacific with her girlfriend from high school,” says Cary.

“No, it’s Ethel Merman singing ‘Anything Goes,’ ” corrects Tolins.

It’s not difficult to see what attracts them to each other. Lately they’ve been collaborating on a series of theater projects, from a musical about ZZ Top to another about the life of talk-show host Ed Sullivan. “And we wrote this movie together, My Owner’s Wedding, which is a romantic comedy from a dog’s point of view,” says Tolins. “We’re really excited about that.” Their fervent wish is to secure Alec Baldwin for the voice of the dog.

“I’d be perfectly happy to work together for the rest of time,” says Cary, who directed the 2007 film Save Me, with Chad Allen and Judith Light, and more recently co-wrote the book and lyrics for the successful Broadway musical version of Flashdance.

After toiling in the shadows for several decades, Tolins is determined to make the most of his newfound status. “I’m starting to be treated in the way I’ve seen other people be treated for 20 years,” he says. “I have always felt incredibly jealous, and said, ‘They never treat me like that; I’m always on the outside.’ And now I can’t say that anymore.”

Buyer & Cellar is playing at The Barrow Street Theatre in Manhattan through December 29.

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