Buyer & Cellar
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[Note: This is a review of the original production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The show has now moved to the Barrow Street Theatre. Barrett Foa takes over the role on May 27.]
Theater review by Adam Feldman. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (Off Broadway). By Jonathan Tolins. Dir. Stephen Brackett. With Michael Urie. 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Stars are to be wished upon, not touched. This is one of the lessons of Jonathan Tolins’s giddily funny solo play, Buyer & Cellar, which imagines an evolving pas de deux between Barbra Streisand and a gay employee at her California home. As documented in her 2010 book, My Passion for Design, Streisand’s Malibu Barbra dream house includes a basement reproduction of a quaint old mall, where she keeps her collection of decorative Americana. (It includes a doll shop and a clothing boutique stocked with her old costumes, displayed with what the play calls “totalitarian precision.”) In Tolins’s fictional account, a struggling actor named Alex is charged with minding the stores. And when the erstwhile ugly duckling swans downstairs from time to time—to nosh on a frozen yogurt or haggle over the “prices” of items on display—Alex is drawn to her magnetic mix of power, insecurity, entitlement and perpetual dissatisfaction.
Happily for us, Alex is played by Michael Urie, a performer of enormous charm and warmth who can also whip out fine dramatic acting when required. Directed by Stephen Brackett, Urie begins with breakneck volubility, hurling Tolins’s knowing gags like fastballs, but this performance is not just a fanfic romp; Urie finds gentle poignancy in his character’s odd exchanges with Streisand (whose Brooklyn-Jewish affect he renders as a kind of wary shrug), as well as with his resentful boyfriend. Although it starts out like an extended Paul Rudnick humor piece, Buyer & Cellar is closer in spirit to Ben Rimalower’s introspective star-worship memoir, Patti Issues. It has fun with Streisand but never treats her like a joke; if you read between the one-liners, Tolins has smart things to say about conspicuous consumption and inspiration. Alex may be a twig in the bonfire of Streisand’s vanity, but flames like hers, the play suggests, have ways of spreading sparks.—Adam Feldman
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam