Michael Urie is coming to town in Buyer and Cellar, giving DC audiences the chance to see one of New York City’s most talked-about performances of last season. It’s exciting news that Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) has augmented its STC Presentation Series to include such a can’t-miss, hot-ticket show. (It did so at the last minute; the series was originally to have included only three offerings, but added this fourth.)
The way it usually works these days is that a new play is done in New York City, following which a DC company gets the rights and debuts its own production of that play. The national tour of the original production of a straight play (as opposed to a musical) is becoming less and less frequent. It’s great that this STC series brings to town stuff that would otherwise require an Amtrak trip to experience in its original form.
Every year there are a couple of shows that are on every New Yorker’s “must see” list. You know, the shows that you will be asked about, and be expected to have an opinion about, at a cocktail party. Sometimes it’s something that’s controversial, and folks expect you to have a point of view. Sometimes it’s a “Wasn’t he fabulous!” consensus. Michael Urie in Buyer and Cellar was in that latter category.
At times, the must-see element is the play itself; there will still be cachet even if the cast changes. Or a memorable production that will also impress after the original actors move on. It may be the main performance that generates the buzz. That’s the case with Buyer and Cellar, so much so that The New York Times ran an article some months ago about whether or not the producers would run the show with an understudy when Urie was scheduled for a long week-end off.
For those of you who don’t follow the NYC scene closely, let me give you a quick sense of what the play is about. It was inspired by playwright Jonathan Tolins learning that Barbra Streisand had built, under her Malibu mansion, a sort of Potemkin mall — a series of stores for which La Streisand would be the only customer. (As improbable as that sounds, it’s true, as attested to by The Washington Post’s Peter Marks, who had a tour when he interviewed Streisand a few years ago.) In Buyer and Cellar, Tolins created an out-of-work actor who staffs the mall and relates to the audience his somewhat surreal experience as its sole employee. (In the play, the mega-star is not named, but it’s pretty clear that she’s the greatest star, she is by far — and everybody knows it.)
I spoke with Urie by phone. He was in Chicago, his first stop on the tour. I began by asking him, why tour the show? It’s still running in New York. He could have stayed put, remained home, and run it for about as long as he would have wanted.
“I did it there for so long,” Urie said, pointing out that, after the play debuted at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, it transferred to an open-ended run Off-Broadway at Barrow Street Theatre, where he played in it for nine months. “So I was ready for a change, more than anything. Plans were in motion for a tour, and I couldn’t possibly imagine that it would be continuing for this long. It’s in its second replacement cast. I’m really proud that it is still running.”
Urie told me that he’s taking the show to a few cities that are important to him. “I knew I wanted to do it in LA, where it takes place, and which is so show biz-centric. Dallas is my home town. But back in 2004, I was in Romeo and Juliet at the Folger, and it was the most wonderful experience. I thought the scene was so strong. I loved the local actors. The audiences were so smart and gracious. We were doing a pretty modern version, concentrating on the psychology of it. The audiences were listening. They heard it. I thought that this would play DC just as well. The audience would listen and pay attention — and be ahead of us. The play moves very, very quickly. If you are not with it, it could get away from you. The DC audience is exactly what we want.”
(Urie played Mercutio in that Folger production. I told him that I would be interviewing Nancy Robinette later that day, who played Nurse in it. Urie remembered Robinette with great fondness, but modestly presumed that she wouldn’t remember him. Of course, she remembered him with equal fondness.)
STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn saw a performance of Buyer and Cellar during that original run at Rattlestick. Urie said that Kahn told him, “If you start bringing it around the country, you could do it at STC.” Urie wasn’t aware that, once STC built Sidney Harman Hall, it was presenting other work as well as producing its own stuff. “But he gave us all the courage for the national tour idea.”
Urie attended the Juilliard School when Kahn led the acting program. Since most of us in DC know Kahn as a director, not a teacher, I asked Urie about that. “He’s a really good teacher. And there’s a reason why they saved him for the third year. He brings a perspective about things that were mysterious until that point. We had brilliant teachers, who really understood the core of acting.” But what Kahn offered, in Urie’s eyes, was the ability to translate theory in “active, playable ways. It was as if he was able to say, ‘Now you know how to act, it’s time to make it interesting for the audience.’ That’s when we have to turn it into entertainment. That’s what he brought to the table. I have to imagine that all that professional experience — at Shakespeare Theatre in DC, at Stratford in Connecticut — has helped him to be able to talk about the craft of acting.”
Was it a surprise that Buyer and Cellar was as successful as it has become, or could Urie tell that he had something special? “It was definitely a surprise that it was so successful. It was a surprise — but it also wasn’t. When I first read it, I knew that it was really good. If I don’t fuck it up and they find us, they will love it. I had a feeling that it would work. I thought, if it doesn’t, I’ll have a great two months doing it at Rattlestick, a nice run in a one-man show, I’ll get a great credit originating a part. But it was as much fun for the audience as it was for me to read, and it became a big hit.”
Urie’s people (you know, the managers and agents and handlers that actors thank when they accept awards) weren’t thrilled with his choice, especially because it kept him busy during “pilot season.” But it worked out better than anyone could have imagined, and Urie got to thank his people when he took home Drama Desk and Clarence Derwent awards. Also, the show was named Best Unique Theatrical Experience by the Off-Broadway Alliance. And you name any top-ten list, this show was on it. (The New York Times and Post and Daily News, the AP, NPR, Newsday, The Huffington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Entertainment Weekly, Playbill, Time Out New York, The Hollywood Reporter make up a partial list.)
We talked a bit about the size of the spaces the show has played. Rattlestick is so small that, Urie told me, the actors (in his case, actor) use the same bathroom as the audience. (How Clark Street Playhouse!) Playing bigger spaces, he told me, has been “an interesting adjustment.” But, less important to him than the capacity of the venue is its configuration. A nice audience rake (in theatre parlance, that means the upward angle front-to-back as opposed to a flat, or nearly flat, floor on which the audience sits) works best: “There is so much direct address, I prefer to have the audience in my eye-line.” He also spoke about how much he looks forward to playing the piece in STC’s Harman Hall, which he described as “beautiful.”
Of course, being the must-see, hot-ticket in New York must mean that a lot of impressive people came to see the show, yes? “There were quite a few crazy-famous people who came. This show is so much about the nature of celebrity. It was interesting to see who wanted to see it and why, and if they had a connection to Barbra herself.”
Barry Manilow came. So did Bette Midler and Neil Simon. Donna Karan and Victor Garber both came twice. The list continues: Neil Patrick Harris, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Durang, James Franco, Moisés Kaufman. Urie began a list of “actors I admire” who had seen it with David Hyde Pierce. With astounding modesty, he said that, were he to meet any of these people in the future, he would be able to say, “You saw me in that Barbra Streisand play,” in case any of them had forgotten him, or his name, after seeing the show. (As if!) He then compared the experience of meeting these celebrities to what his character feels when the mega-star encounters him in the mall. “I feel like Alex does in the basement when Barbra visits.”
Since the show is direct address, with Urie speaking to the audience, did he ever go on not knowing that someone was in the audience until he was able to see that person during the performance? He mentioned Jane Lynch, Mindy Cohn, Holland Taylor (who was Tony-nominated last season for her own solo show in which she played Ann Richards) — as well as an “Oh, look, there’s Frank Langella!” moment he had.
But back to Her Name is Barbra — has anyone close to her seen the show and given any hint about what the Funny Girl might think about it? “I think she finds it amusing. People close to her have seen it and have reported back favorably. I think what she’s heard is ‘It’s great — but you don’t need to see it. Everyone loves it and walks away loving you.’”
I’d say that the three biggest “Will she see the show?” questions recently have revolved around Carole King seeing Beautiful — The Carole King Musical (having left at intermission during a workshop and avoided the opening, she eventually saw the play and joined a number from it on the Tonys); Streisand seeing I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, the play starring Bette Midler about the legendary super-agent which centered on Streisand dropping Mengers as her agent (Streisand saw it in LA and reportedly enjoyed the performance while disputing some of the history); and Streisand seeing Buyer and Cellar (which she hasn’t, to date). So if the icon that Urie refers to as “a cool, classy dame” were ever to ignore the advice she’s gotten and decide to catch the play, how would he feel? “I’d be thrilled. But I wouldn’t want to know until it’s over.” So, memo to Babs: Give the guy a break, take a leaf from Carole King’s book, and slip in incognito.
I asked if there is a generational difference that Urie can discern about audiences, a different perspective that an older audience has. “Oh, sure. Older guys, and also women — in fact, most of the people who go to theatre are older women — they have their own feelings and experiences about Barbra, which is great. They are both crowds that I love. I am a fan of hers, I know a lot about her now,” but, he stressed, the peak of her stardom was before his time. He’s learned the history from books and from friends, “but my experience is different — it’s more of appreciation, less of ownership” the way it is for the Streisand devotees who followed her from the start.
BUYER AND CELLAR
Closes June 29, 2014
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW Washington
Tickets: $25 – $75
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Urie explained that his personal appreciation of Streisand mirrors that of his character who, before snagging the gig in the mall, doesn’t know a lot about Streisand, although the character’s boyfriend does. Playwright Jonathan Tolins, on the other hand, “knows everything there is to know about her and has great insights.” Urie and Tolins became close when both worked on the short-lived sit-com Partners. “I knew him a bit before then, but [while working on that series] we became really good friends, and the rest is history.” (DC theatergoers may have seen Tolins’ play The Twilight of the Golds, which was at the Kennedy Center starring Jennifer Grey on its way to New York. A later film version starred Faye Dunaway and Brendan Fraser.)
Despite the eagerness of his representatives to have him available for pilot season and to have him secure a series, Urie appears to be choosy about telly projects. The series that put him on the map was the much-admired Ugly Betty,and he spoke proudly about Partners, its quick cancellation notwithstanding. If that sit-com had clicked, though, he wouldn’t have had this extraordinary theatrical success. Acknowledging that, Urie saw the glass more than half full. “The series was fun, and it could have been something special. But, I can’t ask for a better role” than Alex in Buyer and Cellar. “It’s just stellar.” He told me that, a couple of hours after we spoke, he was going on for his 399th performance and said that he looks forward to the 400th.
Urie talked about how special it is to do a solo piece. “I’m the only one who’s up there,” he said, before amending the comment by pointing out that he shares the glory with his director, Stephen Brackett. And he ended with a wonderful analogy. On-stage, as in life, “with any good story that you tell, there’s always the thrill of telling it to a new person, in an exciting and compelling way. It’s always fun to surprise the audience with this great story. It’s so fulfilling. This experience I wouldn’t have given up for the world.”