The roadshow version of Buyer & Cellar starring Michael Urie? It’s like buttah.
Barbra Streisand will probably never show up at a performance—c’mon Babs, Carole King put on her big girl panties and finally braved Beautiful, the Tony Award-winning musical about her—but she would most likely be as charmed as the rest of the audience by this fanciful fiction about the lone employee in La Streisand’s basement mall. Not to mention smitten by Michael Urie playing the mall clerk with sweetness and snark.
By the way, the shopping area—rendered in period-perfect 19th century detail—is for reals. Streisand actually has her own retail paradise, a “ye olde” candy store, antique doll shop and costume parlor in the cellar of her oceanfront spread in Malibu.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins dreamt up the notion of the unemployed actor who becomes Streisand’s basement employee, nimbly brought to life by Urie (“Ugly Betty”) along with a bevy of other characters, including the Funny Girl herself—who he portrays not as a caricature but with a distinct flip of the streaked hair, a flutter of the famous nails, the diva’s slightly vaudevillian speech patterns.
Andrew Boyce’s scenic design gives us an early glimpse of Streisand’s storied obsession with perfection, planting Urie in a spotless white room with a few pieces of snow-hued French provincial furniture and china to keep him company.
Urie begins by telling us (and, we assume, any of Streisand’s lawyers who may be listening) that the play is “make-believe” except for Streisand’s book “My Passion for Design,” on which the show is inspired. The book and photo spreads reveal a woman fixated on immaculate detail and also someone rich enough to recreate the ultimate New England manor house on the Pacific coast.
Into this artful artificial world plops Alex, who notices that her attention to every aspect even extends to improving Mother Nature: “The leaves on the trees glittered like sequins on Liza Minnelli.” He gets his duties from the dictatorial major domo Sharon–“Dust, tidy up and greet the customer”—and then he descends to the cellar.
At first, he is fascinated by the wares—her gowns from Funny Girl (including “a mink hat for tugboat travel”), the dolls, the frozen yogurt machine and vintage popcorn popper. But soon the isolation and lack of natural light start to get to him until she shows up one day.
BUYER & CELLAR
Closes June 29, 2014
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $25 – $75
Tuesday thru Sunday
Rattled by Streisand’s arrival, Alex decides to mess with her head after she asks about the price of a French doll, which, of course, she already owns. He improvises a cockamamie backstory about the doll—now named Fifi—and prices it at $850. She tries to bargain. He refuses to relent.
Thus begins a whimsical cat-and-mouse game between a legend and a nobody. Intrigued by his chutzpah, Streisand visits her mall more often and pretty soon Alex has become her confidant and co-conspirator in the dreamland of her own design. This devotion has repercussions in the real world—straining his relationship with his film buff, drama queen boyfriend Barry.
You just fall in love with Urie’s Alex and his misguided attempts to defend Streisand’s choices and to try to care about the smallest, craziest things as much as she does. Even though you know it can’t help but end badly, that his insecurities and acute observations are going to sabotage things, you still root for his desire to understand someone like Streisand, who is probably unknowable, even to herself.
Tolins delivers breath-catching wit—you can barely process one hilarious line before the next one comes along—but Buyer & Cellar is also touching in the way it portrays Streisand’s wistful attempt to create a perfect world. You can’t blame a girl from Brooklyn for trying.
Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins . Directed by Stephen Brackett . Starring Michael Urie . Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce . Costume Design: Jessica Pabst . Lighting Design: Eric Southern . Sound Design: Stowe Nelson . Projection Design: Alex Koch . Production Stage Manager: Michael T. Clarkston . Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.