'Ugly Betty' Alum Michael Urie on Starring in One-Man Show 'Buyer & Cellar'

Joan Marcus
"Buyer and Cellar"

The actor plays an unemployed actor who gets a job overseeing Barbra Streisand's basement emporium in the hit one-man show by Jonathan Tolins, at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum through Aug. 17.

She demands rose petals in her toilet, her assistants and underlings are admonished about making eye contact with her, and she has a mall in her basement with a toy shop, sweets store, and antique and vintage dress shops. All but one of those rumors about Barbra Streisand have been documented — the last one, which has become the setting of Buyer & Cellar, the hit one-man show by Jonathan Tolins, starring Michael Urie (Ugly Betty) at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum through Aug. 17.

Tolins wrote the play based on a comedic essay he penned for The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs page after reading Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book, My Passion for Design, with photos of her Malibu estate, including the basement shopping area. The magazine passed on the piece, so he decided to work it into a one-man show at the behest of his friend, talent rep Craig Gartner, who thought it would be perfect for his client, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family). Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts kept Ferguson from committing and Tolins immediately thought of Urie, whom he worked with on CBS’ short-lived series Partners.

“We start the play with a giant disclaimer, which is part disclaimer, part legal and part setup,” Urie tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The opening of the show I explain that there’s a mall, I explain that there’s a book. She put this mall in her basement and it’s real, and the rest of the story is actually totally fake.”

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The rest of the story is about an unemployed actor who gets a job overseeing Streisand’s basement emporium. Urie plays five characters, including the actor, his boyfriend, Streisand (who pretends to be an ordinary yenta haggling over prices at the mall), Streisand’s husband, James Brolin, and a housekeeper.

“I don’t change clothes. I change my mannerisms and my physicality a little bit, and my voice a little bit,” Urie says about finding his inner Babs. “But really I’m just a guy and you have to really fill in Barbra from the little bit that I do.”

Urie was first introduced to the chanteuse’s oeuvre through her 1994 comeback tour, which he watched with his mother, an ardent fan. Early in rehearsals with director Stephen Brackett, he channeled the sillier, younger Barbra that fans know from movies like What’s Up Doc? and Funny Girl. But Brackett and Tolins wanted the playful though more mature Streisand contemporary fans recognize from Meet the Fockers and 2012’s Guilt Trip.

“It was layering the silliness and coming out the other end with this sort of mature, maternal, still sexy, still funny woman and then pretending that I have fingernails certainly doesn’t hurt,” he laughs. That last tip he got from John Epperson whose character Lypsinka has been a touchstone among female impersonators for years. “He’s the one who said you’re doing a great job but don’t forget she’s got those long fingernails. Surprisingly, just pretending like you have long fingernails makes everything a little bit different.”

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No word yet on whether Streisand has seen the show, but her publicist, Dick Guttman, told the Los Angeles Times his client does plan to attend a performance. But when and if she does, Urie doesn’t want to know lest it throw him off his game. The list of celebs who have attended is legion, including Bette Midler, James Franco, Neil Patrick Harris and Barry Manilow. Stephen Sondheim, Meg Ryan, Candace Bergen and Joy Behar all attended the same performance, and a separate occasion brought Perez Hilton, John Turturro and Jeff Goldblum. Even Jane Fonda stopped backstage once and told him, “I’ve seen that basement.” Donna Karan, Neil Diamond, Jessica Lange and Tobey Maguire have also attended.

Urie finds it all exciting but daunting, though not as daunting as rehearsals and the logistics of performing a one-man show. But after the successful run off-Broadway and the current national tour, Buyer & Cellar is a proven hit and he finds himself finally able to relax a bit.

“It’s nice,” he sighs, after recalling the rigors of rehearsal. “Being in a one-man show has its downfalls, but getting all the glory is not one of them.”