Michael Urie of “Ugly Betty” fame is engaging and funny in Jonathan Tolins witty one-man show, “Buyer & Cellar,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. Imagine a wanna-be acting friend who is going to entertain you for an evening with a tall tale and you’ve got the pitch and premise for this show.
After the usual pre-show request to turn off your cellphones and to not take photos, Urie launches into a big disclaimer and he’s talking to us, the audience. He’s breaking the fourth wall in order to make a legal announcement that this play in no way is a reflection of reality and has nothing to do with any real character, either in the portrayal of the famous (and infamously litigious) Barbra Streisand, her husband James Brolin or her house manager or even the out-of-work actor Alex whom Urie plays.
Urie doesn’t attempt to dress as Streisand or even as Alex. Streisand impersonators can rest easy and retract their claws on that issue. On opening night (Sunday, 13 July 2014), he ran down the aisle and on to the stage in brick red pants, a white t-shirt and a much stretched out grey cardigan like cover. He’s dressed casual and not metrosexual. He’s not trying to impress us, but makes us comfortable. And he begins to talk about one of those large and lovely coffee table books.
In 2010, Streisand authored a book: “My Passion for Design.” The book gives us a personal tour of her Malibu estate with photos by Streisand. Yes, she does seem to be both a control freak and a perfectionist, a point that is part of this show. After publication, Streisand hit the kind of elevated book tour you’d expect for the Brooklyn diva and that included an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show. One of the revelations was that Streisand had visited Winterthur and used it as an inspiration for her basement.
Winterthur was the childhood home of collector and horticulturist Henry Francis du Pont (1880-1969) and has become a museum of American decorative arts. On the second floor, there are the Dominy Shops which are reconstructions of the Dominy family shops. The Dominy family were four generations of craftsmen who worked in Hampton, New York from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s and includes displays of tools as well as the things they made. Winterthur is located in Wilmington, Delaware and is a 1000-acre preserve with a 50-acre naturalistic garden.
Streisand was inspired by Winterthur to design the basement of her barn as a series of Art Nouveau era shops in which she displayed her collections, including Bee’s Doll Shop where she keeps her doll collection on display and a Louis XV-esque antique dress shop where she keeps her gowns from her past performances such as the gown she wore when she sang “People” in the movie “Funny Girl.”
Tolins concept is that a Disneyland disgraced and out-of-work actor gets a gig playing a shopkeeper for all these stores because when the lady of the house goes downstairs, she doesn’t like to be alone and there’s a lot of dusting that needs to be done. Of course, the young man, Alex, does meet Streisand, but he shows some chutzpah and plays the part well enough to get Streisand interested in playing the game. When Streisand asks the price of a doll, he draws on his improv experience (at the Groundlings) to pretend to read the price and then refuse to bargain down. Streisand will have none of it and finds a way to outwit him, but she also seduces him into becoming a supportive fan who helps her prepare to play a role in a famous musical.
Urie portrays all the roles, from Streisand to her seen-it-all house manager, to his Streisand-fan boyfriend. Just as Tolins presents a young actor dreamily convinced that he is contributing to the future stardom of Malibu’s ultimate diva, Urie draws the audience into a conspiratorial fantasy. We become his friends of the evening as he takes us along, asking our opinion and winking knowingly at our own celebrity fantasies.
Living in Los Angeles, wouldn’t we all want to be invited into the private estate of a woman of impressive talent, a scrappy girl who was never told she was beautiful but succeeded in an industry that demands women be conventionally beautiful and did it on her own terms. Yes, Streisand, now that I know about your basement and your frozen yogurt machines, I, too, would want to wander around and even, perhaps, serve to a temporary period as your shop girl if I can’t get an invitation as a guest. That’s a lovely Los Angeles/Hollywood dream and Urie tells it with great charm under the adept direction of Stephen Brackett. I bought the dream and want to visit that cellar as well as Winterthur thanks to Tolins, Urie and Brackett.
Prior to Los Angeles, Michael Urie and “Buyer and Cellar” have appeared in NYC, Chicago and Washington, D.C., and following L.A., will go on to San Francisco and Dallas. “Buyer & Cellar” will have its London premiere in spring 2015.
“Buyer & Cellar” had its world premiere in April 2013 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, where it received rave reviews and played a sold-out, extended run before transferring to New York’s Barrow Street Theatre where it opened June 24, 2013. “Buyer & Cellar,” is the longest-running comedy in New York and it recouped its initial investment faster than any off-Broadway show in recent history.
Streisand fans and Hollywood hopefuls, this is a dream served with an airy whimsy, filled with the hope of the starstruck and crafted with great love.
“Buyer & Cellar” continues at the Mark Taper Forum until 17 August 2014.
Tickets for “Buyer & Cellar” are available by calling (213) 628-2772, visiting www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $25 – $85 (ticket prices are subject to change). The Mark Taper Forum is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.