Dallas — Oh, come on! Don’t tell me you’ve never had the fantasy: you turn around and there stands (fill in the blank), the one celebrity you’d just luv to meet—and wouldn’t you know, he/she needs your advice, or catches your eye to laugh about something…and the story begins. All you have to do is keep the ball rolling. What if this happened…and that…and then something else? You always knew you two would be BFFs if you ever came face to face, right?
Buyer & Cellar is precisely that kind of fan-fic daydream, a playful and bubbly “what if?” from Jonathan Tolins (Twilight of the Golds, Queer as Folk), who tugged on one thin strand of truth—Barbra Streisand really did build an underground “street” of shops on her Malibu estate—and then found himself knitting an entirely fictional shaggy-star story that just kept getting bigger and funnier by the line.
This one-man comedy was a hotter-than-hot ticket in New York last year, and won Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards for Tolins’ inventive script and the play’s star, Michael Urie—a Plano native and Juilliard grad (known for his cute-assistant role on Ugly Betty) who’s come back, triumphantly, to show the hometown crowd what he’s been up to. [For more background on Urie, read Mark Lowry’s interview here.] To see this show you’ll have to move fast, though. Buyer & Cellar, a great start for AT&T Performing Arts Center's new Off-Broadway on Flora series, is at Dallas City Performance Hall only through Sept. 6.
So here’s the idea: What if…a struggling actor, fired from a gig at Disneyland, became the one and only clerk in Barbra’s private underground mall? What if…the “Lady of the House” came shopping (for her own stuff, of course)? What if…she wanted to haggle? What if…they liked each other? Urie, onstage non-stop for nearly two hours, plays all the characters, from the young actor to Babs herself, with a hunky husband (hers) and a snarky boyfriend (his) thrown into the mix. He’s a gleeful perpetual-motion machine, whirling among personas (personae?) without a prop or wig in sight—and after a few minutes, the audience just goes with it, laughing all the way. Urie doesn’t try to sound exactly like Streisand, but the illusion is quirky and marvelous: a certain shrug of the shoulders and hands held just so—and you’re quite convinced that She is in the house.
Director Stephen Brackett (who also directed the original New York production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater) never lets the energy level drop, and Tolins’ laugh-out-loud script works in his favor. Tolins’ trick, it seems, is to think, in elaborate detail, about everywhere this zany situation might go—and then go there shamelessly, because that’s where the jokes are. If the pretend customer wants to shop, what actor wouldn’t happily put his wacky “improv” skills to work? If the star tells stories about her sad childhood, what self-respecting Brooklyn boyfriend wouldn’t have a “wah, wah, cry me a river” comeback jibe? We can’t tell much more without giving away the lines—all rising with perfectly crazy logic from the lines before—that kept an opening-night audience roaring.
And it isn’t just laughs. There’s a certain humane wisdom here, in the play’s look at the have-not Alex and the have-it-all Barbra, and at the price each of them pays for their life choices. They connect in oddball but endearing ways, too, over guys and decorating and what to do on a Sunday afternoon. This is a kind-hearted play, in the end—and whatever jokes Urie makes about his fear of La Streisand turning up at the show…we think she’d like it. (But then sue him anyway, just for fun.)
The show’s New York producers were smart to take their original star on tour. As happens once in a lucky while, the irresistible Michael Urie has made Buyer & Cellar completely his own, a fun-filled, jazz-handed playground of a show—and it’s hard to envision anyone else coming close.
Funny Boy, Funny Girl—funny show.