I knew beforehand that the show was about a man working as the sole employee in Barbra Streisand’s basement mall, underneath her much-publicized Malibu mansion. Yes, that part is true – BS wrote a design book a few years back chronicling the building of her dream house, which does indeed have a shopping mall in the basement, holding all of BS’s memorabilia in various shoppes. (We know they are ‘shoppes’ and not ‘shops’ because Urie’s character adorably pronounces them ‘shopp-ees’ and jokes that one of the ‘shopp-ees’ is probably a purveyor of excess p’s and e’s.)
What I didn’t know was that this simple, cute concept could be taken to such entertaining heights in this pleasant little show.
Jonathan Tolins’ laugh-out-loud script could probably stand on its own with any number of talented actors in the one-man role, but Michael Urie clearly was born to knock it out of the park. As Alex More, Urie projects a sincere warmth and goodness through his often snarky reminiscences of his encounters with his diva employer. I liked Urie fine on Ugly Betty, recognizing his comedic talents as one must when you watch him, but I wasn’t a huge fan. (Maybe because he was so mean to Betty! And to that boyfriend I liked! The really nice but shlubby one! I loved him.) Aaanyway, that character might have colored my perception of Urie, but man alive if I don’t love him now.
In an endearing preface, Urie as himself discusses Barbra’s actual 2010 design book with the audience to familiarize us. The facts about the book are hilarious. Barbra’s writing, for instance, assumes that the reader knows that Winterthur, the inspiration for the basement mall, is a decorative arts and antiques museum in Delaware. Sure sure.
Urie also explains that he doesn’t do an impersonation of Barbra when he acts out her side of dialogue. However, the little aspects of Barbra’s demeanor that he does evoke are so effective that by the middle you are sold on this choice. The slumped shoulders, the seemingly endless and loose fingers, it works.
One-person shows require truly great writing and acting to succeed at all. Often the most telling test for a show that features encounters between various characters is when the audience forgets that all of these characters are only played by one person. Buyer & Cellar absolutely passes this test: Urie really made me feel the presence of several people up on that tiny stage. At times, I was seized with concern for Barbra, wanting to yell to her that Alex probably meant to say more or less or that she could eat as much froyo as she wanted. And then I’d realize, not only is this fiction, but there is no actress up there even playing Barbra. Equally compelling were Alex’s memories of encounters with his boyfriend Barry, who in the beginning was more excited about Alex’s job working for perhaps the greatest gay icon, but as time progressed turned quickly against Babs, partly from the jealousy of Alex’s developing a relationship that he could have no part of, partly from that omnipresent glee we plebeians derive from hating on celebrities whose privilege we mock with derision yet of course envy. (I think 80% of all internet comments exemplify the latter.) That Alex, Barry, Barbra, Babs’s chief of staff, James Brolin hilariously, and even a French bubble-blowing automaton named Fifi all seemed to share the stage equally and fully is a testament to Urie’s talents.
The audience, clearly full of Barbra fans, was completely won over. The show mocks Barbra while somehow remaining kindhearted. It vilifies her well-known insecurities as superficial interview fodder yet conveys her vulnerability. And still it remains a light, delicious, and hilarious hour and a half that I whole-heartedly recommend experiencing. The producers recently, wisely, decided to extend its limited run indefinitely. My only regret was not waiting afterward to get a pictures with Urie, but I feared in my newfound fangirl state I would start “shopping for throw pillows” on him as Barbra once did. You just must see it!