By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
Josh Wallenstein will appear in “Buyer and Cellar” by Jonathan Tolins at the Cider Mill Stage from April 7-10. The play was the winner of the 2014-2015 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Solo Show. For additional information about the performances, visit their website.
Comedian, singer, teacher and now actor: That’s the trajectory of Josh Wallenstein’s career. His latest move is a first for him: he’s doing a solo performance in “Buyer and Cellar” by Jonathan Tolins at the Cider Mill Stage. As he noted in an e-mail interview, never before has he recited anyone else’s words on stage.
“What I love about standup is that when people laugh, they’re laughing at this thing that I created completely; from the writing to the delivery,” he noted. “Whereas acting in a play, I’m delivering someone else’s words. When I first read the play, there were so many lines I came across that made me think, ‘Man, I wish I’d written that!’ Because there are ways that I’m very similar to the character in the play, Alex: we’re a couple fabulous gays trying to make it in showbiz. However, we differ enough that it’s still a challenge to embody someone else and make him not me. But that’s part of what I love about acting. I get to take on this whole new persona that is completely different from myself and my standup persona.”
“Buyer and Cellar” has been described as a “one-man show about an actor who takes a job staffing a fake mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement.” That means the actor must play a variety of roles, including that of Streisand. “It’s so fun to take on so many different roles,” Wallenstein said. “It’s crazy, though, because a huge part of theater is playing off other characters.
Sometimes one character cuts off another, sometimes they talk over each other, etc. When you’re the one playing all of them, you have to learn to cut yourself off, which is interesting.”
He noted that “the most difficult part is making sure that each character is distinct: making sure that each character has their own unique mannerisms and inflections. Luckily, early in the play, Alex makes it clear that he does not impersonate Barbra, and when he recreates their conversations, he says, ‘I will just be her, and you can fill in the rest.’ This takes a little bit of the pressure off ‘impersonating’ her and being the Barbra that people are familiar with.
Additionally, the play is all about exposing the Barbra that people aren’t familiar with (even if it’s a fictional depiction). A peek behind the curtain that not many have gotten, which gives a little more freedom to play with her character a bit. It’s been fun playing her. She’s such a dynamic character, and the juxtaposition between her who has it all and Alex who lives in a studio apartment has been fun to play.”
Wallenstein feels that inhabiting another persona has given him a chance to stretch his acting muscles. It helps that he’s never seen a full performance of the play. “It’s probably for the best, because I’m sure if I were to see the entire thing, my instinct would be to mimic what other actors are doing with the role,” he noted. “So just seeing the clips [of the play], I have a frame of reference for what the various characters can be, and then I get to run with it and make it my own. I have to keep in mind that there’s no one right way to play each role. I can play things bigger or smaller than others have played the role, because we all interpret the writing differently.”
He did jokingly note one way he was different from other Jewish gay men. “I didn’t know much about Barbra Streisand prior to working on this play,” he said. “I know, a gay Jew who doesn’t follow Barbra. No real reason why, I just didn’t grow up watching or listening to her. She wasn’t on my radar. I think that’s one of the ways I relate to the character, Alex. At one point, he describes not being much of a ‘Barbra queen’ before getting the job in her basement. That’s definitely me. I’m making up for lost time now!”
At the moment, Wallenstein has no future acting commitments, but he is open to the possibility. “I haven’t planned on doing more acting,” he said. “I’m sure doing this play will make me catch the acting bug again. Especially acting with other people! That will be refreshing after doing this one solo.”