I’ll start with a confession, and some of you may relate: I was hesitant to interview Michael Urie. He’s so very talented, smart, funny, and handsome that I thought — in a very special and gay insecure way — “He’s got to be a bitch.”
What a pleasure, then, to report that he is indeed all of those sterling adjectives, as well as being oh so nice, seriously politically informed, with charm to spare.
Urie is currently starring in Red Bull’s spirited revival of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” (through August 20), with a delicious ensemble of seasoned farceurs, and suffice it to say that if these were the golden days of Hollywood, some scout would have scooped him up to be signed to a seven-year contract at a big studio, the next Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon.
At a noisy, bustling Route 66, we met and, after greeting a table-hopping Christian Borle (whom he replaced in “Angels in America”), he enthused about his show.
“It’s so much fun! We all belong in comedy jail. I can’t believe there’s any scenery left between the chewing and the door slamming and the falling. We get along so beautifully, and the audiences are amazing. I don’t know where they’re coming from. The first time I worked with Red Bull was a thousand years ago, replacing someone in only their second production. While I was there, this casting director saw and liked me in the play and brought me in for ‘Ugly Betty.’ So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for this company because of that, but also because it was a classical theater company, which I went to Juilliard for. After graduation, I thought I’d do Shakespeare, Molière, and Chekhov. Juilliard had given me the John Houseman Award and I have kind of done that stuff, but not exclusively, so it’s been really cool to come back here.
“I’d been wanting to do a play, and they brought this to me about a year ago. I immediately loved the script: when you think Russian comedy from 19th century, you think you might find it amusing, probably thoughtful but also maybe stuffy, and this translation is hilarious, a joke a minute, and so accessible my ll-year old nephew loved it.”
Urie is also — casting agents, take note! — convincingly heterosexual as the bumbling title character of the play, and winningly so, singing a ditty at one point and with an outrageous extended drunk scene the critics kvelled over. All that takes considerable technique, and Urie said, “I have been told many times that I should stop playing gay roles, as you might guess, and I crave to do that but there are never any offers. And, as long as the gay roles that come my way are so good, why would I stop doing them? For nothing? That was definitely another reason why I decided to do this show.”
He has an almost uncanny knack for picking the right plays to appear in, like “The Temperamentals,” which is when I first saw him act onstage, playing closeted fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, embroiled in the burgeoning, though still every early “homophile” movement of the 1950s.
“That role was so cool, one of those rare new play miracles, which I did readings of from the very beginning. Such a serious character who was really struggling, beautifully directed, and produced by Daryl Roth. She was a part of the reason it became a success — I was doing ‘Ugly Betty’ at the time but she made it easy for me to be in the show and responsible in certain ways for my being taken seriously as an actor. All these doors opened up, and because of that I got ‘Angels in America.’ ‘The Temperamentals’ would make a great film. We’ve talked about that.”
Then there was “Buyer and Cellar,” that solo smash success by Jonathan Tolins about a young LA gay man who gets hired by Barbra Streisand to staff her basement, which she has turned into a mall and a museum devoted to her hobbies and herself.
“That came to me because I was doing a TV show Jonathan wrote, and we became friends. He slipped me the script he had written for Jesse Tyler Ferguson and said, ‘I would love for you to do it one day. I’m sure you’ll be great in it.’ It read like a big juicy novel, hilarious and delightful. Our show got cancelled and Jessie’s didn’t [“Modern Family”], so Jonathan called Jessie to ask if he minded me taking over his role. Jessie didn’t mind and Rattlestick Theater needed a show to go in, so it happened quickly, not like the year it usually takes. It had a six-week run, which became me doing it 600 times.
“That only got old trying to get my ass to the Rattlesnake every night, knowing what I’d have to do. My character had to be so infectiously joyful, and around 5 p.m. every day I would get depressed, almost as if my body was anticipating the joy which had left me for the day to be used for my show. Exhausting. I performed it in two theaters in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Los Angeles, Westport, Connecticut, London.”
Streisand herself never saw the show, but it was filmed and, “I heard she watched it with other people and stayed to the end. It must have been weird for her to watch, but I was told she liked it. But she never came to the play in disguise. Never sent me flowers [snickers].”
Born and raised in a suburb of Dallas, his surroundings were conservative but, he said, “I was lucky. My older sister, seven years older than me, is married to a woman. She loved sports and paved the way for me in a lot of ways to be gay and also not to have to play sports. I was forced to be on the soccer team, terrible at it and so miserable, but my parents let me do what I wanted to. Then I was in the drama department and thanks to that, I read ‘Angels in America’ and ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ at 17 and I knew that world. ‘Love! Valour! Compassion!’ I had access to that stuff. Kids today have the Internet… I just said, ‘Kids today!’ [Laughs.] When I was a kid, we had plays — that’s how I learned.
“I dated a few women. It was pretty fluid for a while, and then when I met [partner] Ryan Spahn it was really simple and an easy decision. That sort of taught me devotion. Yes, in Texas you can still get killed for being gay. But my sister is now a doctor of psychology with three little ones, and I’m a working actor in New York. We’re doing okay, and our parents were so smart and supportive.”
Urie and Spahn, also an actor who writes and directs, have been together eight and a half years. They met through mutual friends “twice. The first time it didn’t take [laughs], and then a year and a half later, it did. No marriage plans: when are we gonna do it? We can’t make plans, we have to be available for work. He’s friends with Halley Feiffer and now is in Williamstown, doing her new play.
“It’s hard sometimes being with another actor, but who else is going to put up with this shit? The stakes are so high and so low, and everything I deal with he deals with. His rejection is mine and vice-versa, and the same with success. But we’re really good about putting it away, saying, ‘We can’t talk about work anymore.’
“We both really like kids, but haven’t figured that out. We have a dog and a cat, they’re our children. Plus two nephews on his side and a niece and nephew on mine are awesome. My parents are now back in Texas, his are in Michigan.”
Coming up for Urie is the first revival in 35 years of “Torch Song” (with Mercedes Ruehl as his mother) at Second Stage, running for eight weeks beginning September 26, followed by his first “Hamlet” in Washington, beginning January 16. He laughed at my suggestion that he say his first “Torch Song” line a la Fierstein, all gravelly, just to psych the audience.
“We’ve talked about it a little, nothing too deep. I can always hear him doing it, his inflections, which is good as he’s drawn a map for me.
“I played Horatio to Hamish Linklater’s Hamlet, directed by Dan Sullivan, for South Coast Repertory. He was so good, a born Hamlet, and I can hear it all in my head, his line readings. I want my own, too, but it’s nice to have that map, as well. I’ve never done it before, but Michael Kahn, who’s directing, wants to do it with me and doesn’t want to impose anything on me. Just me, so far. Hey, everyone, after ‘Torch Song,’ come to DC for ‘Hamlet,’ and stay for Pence’s inauguration. Has Trump resigned yet?”
THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR | New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. | Through Aug. 20: Mon., Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sun. at 2 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m. | $75-$95, telecharge.com | Two hrs., with intermission