The first thing you need to know about “Buyer & Cellar” is that it’s a hilarious and heartfelt comedy, one of the most delightful evenings to be had on the New York stage right now. Jonathan Tollins’ new one-man show was inspired by a home design book written by Barbara Streisand. In it, she writes about building her Malibu dream house and installing a mall in the basement, fitted out with shops to showcase her seemingly limitless collections of stuff.
“I saw the news about the mall in her basement,” Tollins said in describing the genesis of the piece, “and I made a little joke: How would you like to be the guy who works there? I wrote the diary of the guy who works there in a mall with only one very famous customer. I submitted it to the New Yorker, and they demurred. However, I had a friend in LA who is a talent manager, and he said, ‘You should write it as a one-man show.’ I started doing my research about Barbra, and it became an exercise to make it as real as I could possibly make it. And see if I could believe that I was that guy who worked there. The sheer silliness of the premise went a long way to write funny.”
In the play’s debut at the Rattlestick, Michael Urie plays Alex, the young gay actor who gets the job minding the store, so to speak. Urie gives a virtuoso comedic performance, playing, in fact, all the parts — including Barbra, Alex’s jaded boyfriend, and various others.
The 32-year-old gay actor emphasized that his turn as Barbra is not intended as an impersonation. Though his mother was a big Streisand fan, he recalls only becoming aware of her at 16 or 17. Urie later “became obsessed” with the movie “Hello Dolly” and saw Streisand at the Hollywood Bowl. In preparation for “Buyer & Cellar,” he read books about her and checked out some of her performances on YouTube Still, he said, “I never had a vivid memory of her.”
That may come as a surprise to audiences given the clarity of Urie’s performance. The image of Streisand that Alex encounters is, indeed, vivid.
“Michael delineates so clearly, we didn’t need the narration, such as ‘then she said…,’” Tollins said.
One of the keys to “Buyer & Cellar,” the playwright said, is that every member of the audience will bring their own idea of Barbra — even their own relationship to her — into the theater. Barbra comes alive in each viewer’s mind, allowing for a very sympathetic portrayal of the star.
Tollins and Urie sing each other’s praises in talking about how the show got on its feet. Another actor was set to play the role, Tollins said, and when he couldn’t, Urie immediately came to mind. The actor happened to be available just as Rattlestick had a hole open in its season. Kismet, indeed. Over an accelerated rehearsal period, they worked to fine tune the piece into the delightful and heartfelt show it’s become.
Urie, fresh off “Partners” on ABC, a stint as Bud Frump in “How To Succeed in Business…,” and a string of hit Off-Broadway shows, didn’t start out to be an actor. He was, he said, a highly imaginative child who loved to play with his toys and create scenes for them, never thinking he was training for acting and directing. His intention had been to teach theater, but he also participated in speech and debate competitions. During one, he discovered he had a talent for making people laugh.
Urie makes no claim to having been an exemplary student, but on a school trip to New York a teacher suggested he audition for Juilliard. He did and got in, and so began his career. His role on “Ugly Betty” shot him to stardom, but his well-crafted and focused theater work has established him as a star on stage as well.
As a director, Urie’s first film, “Thank You For Judging,” a documentary about high school speech and debate, has played in a variety of festivals and is available on Chill.com. His upcoming film “He’s Way More Famous Than You” is a comedy about the drive for fame.
Fame and proximity to it — and our cultural fascination with that — are at the heart of Urie’s performances in “Buyer & Cellar.” He talked feelingly about the way his character Alex responds to the validation that comes from being around someone as famous and powerful as Streisand. In Urie’s sensitively pitched performance, though, Alex ultimately discovers something more universal about how we all need and seek validation. Being in the thrall of our drive for acceptance carries risks, and we never fully become ourselves until we release that need — even if it means we’ll never have a mall in our own basements.
“Buyer & Cellar” is a lovely, poetic, and thoughtful play that happens to be both completely hilarious and irresistible. It’s a treat not to be missed.
BUYER & CELLAR | Rattlestick Playwrights Theater | 224 Waverly Pl., btwn. Seventh Ave. S. & W. 11th St. | Mon., Wed. & Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $10-$55 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111