Buyer and Cellar
Barrow Street Theatre
January 13, 2014
Some years ago, I was given, as a birthday present, a coffee table glossy hardcover book written by Barbra Streisand (it was never clear whether it was given as a joke or seriously, as my ambivalence to the great diva that is La Streisand has always been clear) but it turned out to be one of those gifts that keeps on giving.
In it, Streisand opines about architectural design and her own incredible home, its nooks and crannies. Open any page at random, read it out aloud and there is bound to be something hysterically funny, though probably unintentionally so, on the page. The book has given me enormous pleasure as a result and now playing off-Broadway, at the lovely Barrow Street Theatre, is a play inspired by that very book.
Jonathan Tolins took the book as a starting point, imagining the underground mall that Streisand had installed at her home for all of her belongings and postulates what life must be like for the poor lad who works in the mall.
Enter Michael Urie, a gifted and actually quite brilliant actor, who is the only star of Tolins’ Buyer and Cellar and who plays himself, Alex More (the said attendant and long distant cousin of Sir Thomas More), Alex’ boyfriend, Barry, La Streisand herself, her ruthless personal assistant, Sandra, and James Brolin.
Urie is magical to watch; his comic timing is perfect and his sense of the various characters absolute, precise and prickling with detail. He switches effortlessly between characters, easily and quickly evoking whichever is required.
His work is relentlessly charming and funny. He captures the spirit and essence of Streisand perfectly; he is alarmingly funny as the diva. But his other work is equally as solid. And the play is more than the hilarious piece it is advertised as: in a lot of ways, it is a serious and thought-provoking contemplation of fame, solitude, loneliness, friendship and humanity.
Urie is able to be intensely touching, breathlessly honest and dreamily whimsical all at once. You feel his awe, his fear, his gentle surrender to the power of the diva, his seduction into her world, his mistaking what is important in his life, his petulance, his downfall, his sorrow – it’s a rich tapestry of true life emotions played out against a farcical and ludicrous set of values, all of which are enshrined and articulated in the coffee table book.
Tolins has really written something quite special; an allegory for modern times. You think it is about gay men and their fixation with Streisand- but really it is about the frailty of the human condition and the easy mistakes one can make which diminish the experiment of life.
It’s a delicious and satisfying theatrical experience in every way. Urie is nothing short of remarkable.