Theater Preview: 'Buyer & Cellar' showcases diverse talents of Jai Rodriguez

In her lavish 2010 book, "My Passion for Design," Barbra Streisand revealed photographs of the picturesque "street" of shops she had created in her Malibu estate's basement to display her collections and memorabilia — dolls, antiques, vintage shoes and dresses, china, and much more.

That detail inspired playwright Jonathan Tolins' award-winning comedy, "Buyer & Cellar," a surprise hit when it opened Off-Broadway in 2013, to be followed by a national tour and numerous regional and local productions.

The latest incarnation of this one-man, multiple character play opens at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank on Friday, with Jai Rodriguez — a veteran stage actor and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" alum — as Alex, a struggling young actor who takes the job of clerk in Streisand's subterranean mall, serving the mega-diva when she descends to join him as his one and only "customer."

"What blossoms from there is the essence of what makes the show so hilarious and interesting and touching," Rodriguez said. "The underlying thought is when you have so much, when you've done so much, how do you navigate through the world?"

The characters' interwoven journeys, he said, are "about figuring out what's next and how to get there."

During the course of this comedic fiction, fueled by issues of fame, identity and celebrity, the young actor and Streisand connect in unexpected ways.

Rodriguez's research for the role included televised tours of Streisand's property and interview clips on YouTube, "not for the impersonation part, but to kind of get the nuances to distinguish the way she talks and the way I talk," he said.

He watched Streisand movies from "Funny Girl" to "The Mirror Has Two Faces," as well as films such as "Gigi," due to the play's numerous movie references.

Although he addresses the audience directly, the show isn't stand-up, and it isn't about doing a Streisand impression, Rodriguez said. He also portrays Alex's cynical boyfriend and members of Streisand's staff.

When he is Streisand in the play, he embodies her, he said, the way Alex would if he were relating the story of his experience to friends — with a bit of his own experience mixed in: "I'm from New York with many a Jewish aunt in my life."

Director Dimitri Toscas approached "Buyer & Cellar" as if there were more than one person on stage.

"I basically directed the show as if everybody existed, and then Jai and I decided together what things felt natural, when it felt he should be one of the characters physically," he said.

At times, Rodriguez may be "talking as Alex, but moving as Barbra," Toscas said. "Sometimes he's switching between characters physically, and sometimes he's standing in just one space talking right at us."

Adhering to the specificity of Tolins' writing was key. There are scripts that are open for interpretation, Toscas noted, "but this script is so infused with Tolins' voice and character and wit, you have to lean into it and relish the storytelling. It's like this delicious story that has a little tinge of gossip and danger to it."

"I was getting line notes when I added a comma where a period should be," Rodriguez said. "All of those little inflections and subtle nuances are really what tell the story effectively."

Rodriguez may be most widely known for his role as the young culture maven on Bravo's "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," and numerous TV appearances, but his professional stage career began on Broadway at age 18, when he was cast as "Angel" in the Jonathan Larson musical "Rent," followed by a stint in "The Producers."

Off Broadway, Rodriguez played the title role in the cult hit "Zanna, Don't!" and was featured in Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter" at the Lincoln Center. His regional work includes San Diego Repertory's production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "In the Heights."

Rodriguez, who honed his vocal skills in gospel choirs growing up, also tours annually with his original cabaret show.

Of Puerto Rican and Italian descent, Rodriguez said that he is heartened by the fact that more roles have become available to actors of different ethnicities that aren't "the archetypes I thought I was always going to have to play: the drag queens, the drug dealer, the immigrant. To see a full range of roles being written for people of every color, it's quite cool. I have my eye set on shows like 'Hamilton.' "

"Jai is really a theater kid," Toscas said. "If people think they know him [from 'Queer Eye'], I think they're going to be pleasantly surprised."

However, Toscas said, there is one "bittersweet" aspect to the show: the absence of Garry Marshall, the prolific writer-director-producer who built the Falcon Theatre with his daughter, producer Kathleen Marshall LaGambina.

Marshall, who died earlier this year, "had a lot of hands-on with this production," Toscas said. "Now, he isn't around to make laugh or get notes from, and that's always been such an important part of my experience at the Falcon."

"But you do feel his energy, and his presence," Rodriguez said. "He's in every nook and cranny in the theater."

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What: "Buyer & Cellar"

Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

When: Opens at 8 p.m. Friday. Runs 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 6.

Info: Call (818) 955-8101 or visit falcontheatre.com

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Times Community News.

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