What is Barbra Streisand really like? And perhaps even more intriguingly, what would she be like to work for?
Playwright Jonathan Tolins doesn’t really know the answer to these questions, as he admits in his disclaimer-like prologue to his one-man comedy “Buyer & Cellar,” which will be at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through March 29 (for ticket information, visit georgestreetplayhouse.org). He has only met Streisand once, briefly. But, as skillfully imagined by him, and brilliantly played in New Brunswick by John Tartaglia, the story still has a ring of truth, even when the plot gets absurd.
Tartaglia, Tony-nominated for his work in “Avenue Q,” plays Alex More, a struggling actor who stumbles upon an opportunity to work in Streisand’s home. Or, more specifically, in the basement of the Streisand’s Malibu estate. It takes a while for him to meet her, but he eventually does, and they become friends — somewhat gingerly, as Alex doesn’t want to seem too eager, and Streisand is not one to let her guard down quickly.
The play — which debuted off-Broadway in 2013, and is directed here by George Street artistic director David Saint — is really about the ups and downs of their relationship, and that means there’s a huge burden on Tartaglia. He doesn’t play two parts, technically. He’s always Alex, telling Alex’s story. But when he tells you what Streisand said or did, he says it in her voice, or acts it out. And the biggest marvel of his performance (made possible by Tolins’ sharp writing) is his ability to make Streisand a complex, fascinating character: Smart but wary, ambitious and almost unbelievably accomplished, but also needy. She wants to make a connection with Alex, yet can’t help analyzing him coldly, and figuring out how she can get what she wants from him. She’s also a bit passive-aggressive, casually dropping bluntly honest, potentially hurtful things in a soft voice, with a world-weary sigh.
Alex brings other characters into the story, too, including Alex’s shrill, hilariously neurotic boyfriend, and Streisand’s amiable husband, James Brolin. Remarkably, Tartaglia’s energy never flags in a play that’s basically a 90-minute monlogue (with no intermission) on a stage that’s bare throughout, except for a chair and a couple of tables.
Streisand’s fans will be entertained by Tolins’ many references to Streisand’s work and personal life, and his observations about showbiz. Speaking of which … the stage upon which the play is being presented is the Arthur Laurents Stage. The late Laurents, a playwright, director and screenwriter, was closely associated with the Playhouse, and premiered nine works there. He also worked with Streisand on several projects, including “The Way We Were.” And he plays a part in the story of “Buyer & Cellar.” So this feels like the right place for “Buyer & Cellar” to be.
I didn’t buy the play’s climactic scene, during which the tensions in the Streisand/Alex relationship finally came to a head. Things escalated too quickly; it didn’t feel right, given the months Streisand and Alex had spent circling around each other, tentatively establishing their bond. But that’s a minor flaw in a production that’s consistently funny, and touching, and thought-provoking, and will surely rank among the best that New Jersey theaters will present this year.