Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place. By Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Stephen Brackett. With Michael Urie. Running time: 1hr 40mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Jonathan Tolins’s comedy began as a throwaway joke: Dishing about Barbra Streisand’s rather self-indulgent coffee-table tome, My Passion for Design, and its revelation that Babs installed a fake Main Street in a basement of her Malibu dream house, lined with old-timey “shops” where she keeps her collections of dresses and dolls, the playwright quipped, “Imagine being the guy who has to work down there.” And he does so delightfully in Buyer & Cellar, dreaming up an out-of-work actor named Alex More, whose work experience on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. earns him a shot at keeping shop for a single demanding customer.
Yet while it started as a wisecrack, Tolins developed his conceit into a 100-minute piece that’s blisteringly funny but far warmer and wiser than its elevator pitch. That’s due in large part to the thoroughly impressive Michael Urie, whose performance as Alex—and in turn, as Barbra and the story’s other characters—deftly negotiates some tricky turns. Urie first appears onstage as himself, in a sort of conversational disclaimer laying out which parts of the piece are real (brandishing Barbra’s book for reference) and which are fiction.
Alex, it turns out, is no Streisand superfan; as a gay man, he tells us, he feels about Barbra (and Judy, too) the way Jewish people feel about the Passover seder: “you have to acknowledge it, as part of my birthright, my heritage.” It’s his TCM-addicted boyfriend, Barry, who loves the star with the kind of zeal that can seem like hate. As Alex becomes enamored with his insecure, perfectionist customer in her private soundstage version of Americana, it’s Barry who’s there to burst the bubble. (His biting takedown of The Mirror Has Two Faces is particularly choice.)
And yet Tolins and Urie create a sympathetically human-scaled portrait of Streisand as a former ugly duckling who willed herself into a level of fame that turned out to be debilitating, who literally has more money than she knows what to do with and needs someone else around to tell her what to do on Sundays. Urie makes a tour de force tour guide, rendering his tale in fluid, charmingly conspiratorial tones and stocking this Cellar with equal parts in-jokes and insights.