'Buyer & Cellar': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Michael Urie in "Buyer & Cellar"
This often uproarious fantasy appropriates an obsession with Barbra Streisand to illuminate the contours of a narrator’s sensibility. 

Michael Urie brings his hit Off-Broadway exploration of the difference between idols and idolators to L.A. in this comedy set at Barbra Streisand's Malibu estate.

Fresh off an acclaimed New York run where it won multiple awards for best solo show and performance, Jonathan Tolins’ snarky yet sneakily sentimental Buyer & Cellar, starring Emmy nominee Michael Urie (Marc St. James in the long-running series Ugly Betty), represents some kind of ne plus ultra of a mainstream gay one-hander. Unabashed, confident in its broadness of brush (not least because of the pointillist precision of its observation), and with an unerring command of its comic and pathetic effects, Buyer & Cellar is the sort of heartwarmingly savage show the whole family can enjoy.

Unless, of course, you happen to be Barbra Streisand. While the object of sincere-to-the-point-of-overbearing affection, she always remains an object: more often than not mercilessly caricatured, though admittedly within the bounds of generally received public perception of her personality quirks. Tolins manifests a shrewd manipulation of tone here, accomplishing a nervy balancing act of being indulgently nasty without ever actually being mean. It’s a brand of abrasively tough love that subjects a celebrity to the same withering standards of perfectionism she allegedly demands of everyone else — a sort of rough justice that I would find exploitative were it not for the emotional dividends it provides in insights. 

Those insights are less about the iconic superstar herself than about Urie’s Alex More and, by extension, all he purports to represent.

More mans the basement of the barn on Streisand’s fabled estate, which has been designed to resemble a quaint, European-styled arcade of little shoppes in which she stores her pack-rat collection of dolls, dresses and toys accumulated over a lifetime of exquisite taste and compulsive acquisition. Severely underemployed actor More (claiming to be a descendent of the Man for All Seasons who wrote Utopia), expelled from the Eden of Disneyland’s Toontown, finds himself hired as the lonely, claustrophobic clerk at the beck and call of a most exclusive retail customer.

The interactions with a role-playing Streisand in a sublimely egocentric paradise of her making — an absolute expression of her will doomed never to embody her dream of perfection — suggest paradigms of master-servant Strindbergian in dimension. Counterfeit intimacies are exchanged warily between the infatuated fan and the supremely controlling, prickly luminary, each scrutinizing the other for chinks in their fealty or fabulousness. Not so much a "dance of death" as a pas de deux of unequal co-dependents warily risking vulnerability and quick to default to criticism or umbrage.

Urie is a thoroughly commanding performer who can play very large indeed without sacrificing nuance or even subtlety, however big the gestures. He has an innate ability to command empathy and tell a story.

Yet Tolins (Secrets of the Trade, Twilight of the Golds), who cut his teeth in such fine Los Angeles enclaves of theatrical commitment as the Black Dahlia and Theater of N.O.T.E. (and who could perhaps be more generous in his pointedly accurate dismissal of our scene’s earnest excesses), has indeed fashioned a play out of his essentially revue-like materials. In some ways, it forfeits some of its ferocity for more conventional, though touching, sensitivity. But the juxtaposition of Alex’s increasing obeisance to his subservient role and the clashing cynicism and brittle bitterness of his struggling screenwriter boyfriend Barry raises the stakes and gives the precious conceit some legitimate and relatable emotional heft. Urie does not impersonate Streisand, merely suggesting her to fit the purposes of his tall tale. Similarly, though not less affectingly, he suggests Barry’s frustration and sincere affection.

Buyer & Cellar has already been over-praised to the point where expectations become the enemy of appreciating the ultimate delicacy of its seductive charms. Steel yourself against the buzz, and enjoy.

Cast: Michael Urie
Director: Stephen Brackett
Playwright: Jonathan Tolins
Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce
Lighting Design: Eric Southern
Costume Design: Jessica Pabst
Sound Design: Stowe Nelson

A Center Theatre Group presentation