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Buyer & Cellar

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Michael Urie
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Latching onto the ancient axiom that fact is stranger than fiction, Jonathan Tolins based his play Buyer & Cellar on the bizarrely true (and truly bizarre) reality that Barbra Streisand has a mall in her basement. Not a traditional mall where ordinary people go to buy things, mind you, but a destination based on the Delaware museum Winterthur that gives her an extravagant place to show off her unique and irreplaceable memorabilia. Once Tolins begins digging into all the possibilities this presents, we get to see first-hand how it's possible for fiction to be oh so much more entertaining than fact.

With expert assistance from Michael Urie, the only actor onstage (and the only actor you need) at the Barrow Street Theatre, where the play has just reopened following an acclaimed run at Rattlestick this past spring, Tolins transforms what could otherwise be a flimsy fantasy into 100 minutes of pure comedic delight. He and Urie admit in the blithe prologue that only the existence of that mythical basement is true, and that, despite what we're about to see, no one man is actually employed therein to help make Streisand's "shopping" experience even more real. ("What I'm going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand," comes the up-front admission.)

Even so, it's a potent "what if" scenario that provokes no shortage of laughs and, for Urie, a scintillating showcase. Under Stephen Brackett's sharp-edged direction, still another miracle occurs: It all plays so well, and so universally, that you don't need to be a Barbra Streisand fan in order to thrill to it.

Urie's main character, Alex More, is a struggling actor who acquires the job of a lifetime as "proprietor" of Streisand's collection. He particularly ingratiates himself to her when, upon her entering the doll shop, he develops and delivers a lengthy back story about how one choice piece emigrated from Europe after World War II—and then proceeds to haggle with her about the price. This leads to a unique relationship that leads her to inspire him, and him to (on some level, at least) validate her, even to the point of becoming her acting coach as she prepares to play Madame Rose in an upcoming film of Gypsy.

Because she's a central figure in the tale, you're exposed to her quite a bit. But though you'll occasionally detect a touch of the familiar in the nasality of Urie's line delivery or the particular way he arches his back or flutters his hands, Buyer & Cellar is not about impersonating her ("Enough people do her—even some women—so you don't need me to," Urie acknowledges early on) or otherwise mocking her at all. In fact, Tolins treats her with a kind of loving respect that stops well short of hagiography. She's neither a monster nor a saint, but a human with preferences, tics, and foibles on open, unashamed display. And through them, you see just how much she has in common with the young gay man she's unwittingly mentoring.

That's about as "deep" and "weighty" as this work gets, by the way. Tolins unleashes a few riffs on the vicissitudes and eccentricities of stardom, and the way those can trickle down to the "little people" who get caught in the wake. And a bit of armchair analysis of Streisand's oeuvre does creep in by way of a viewing party of The Mirror Has Two Faces. There's substantial enough amusement to compensate for the lack of more significant meaning, though it occasionally you sense that Tolins is trying to push things further than they can naturally go in these circumstances.

The show gets no closer to having a real problem than that. Though, were I to get nitpicky, I might question whether the "plot" surrounding Alex (the employment woes that lead to his new gig, financial difficulties, arguments with his boyfriend) is really necessary as conceived and executed, or whether the white living room showpiece set (by Andrew Boyce) effectively conveys either the real or imagined luxury it's apparently intended to. Neither qualm, however, is particularly relevant in light of how much is so right with everything else.

That includes Urie, an actor of prodigious stage experience also well known from TV (primarily Ugly Betty), who is luminous and likable throughout. He projects an ingratiating confidence in the opening scenes that serves as a satisfying springboard for the explorations of doubt that dot the second half, and never plumbs too far into the regret or sentimentality that could otherwise mar this carefully crafted portrait. He portrays Alex, Streisand, and a few others (Alex's boyfriend, Streisand's house manager, and so on) with such honest bravado that you never doubt his sincerity as any of them. He's naturally at home in any situation.

To the extent that any of what unfolds has a point beyond raw entertainment, this is probably it: Constant adaptability is what establishes and maintains stars, and what separates them from everyone else. It's clear that Urie understands this implicitly, but it's something Alex can only learn from Streisand the hard way. If the moral of Buyer & Cellar is that no one on any rung of the ladder is ever exactly who you think they are, that's all well and good. But focusing too much on that, or the marquee name who powers the evening, means you'll miss risking the grander joys Tolins and Urie have put so abundantly on offer.

Buyer & Cellar
Through September 1
Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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