People Who Need People

Review of Buyer & Cellar, Westport Country Playhouse

A one-man play about a fictional lone employee in the perhaps real basement beneath a faux New England mill housing the shopping-mall, or storage shops, in which Barbra Streisand stores her various collections. What could be the attraction? Sure, some people are fascinated by “Babs” and her extravagant life and lifestyle, but, even if so, isn’t the show likely to undermine such adoration? And if you aren’t in the least interested in what Streisand hath wrought, how could you possibly endure the show?

OK, so I’ve expressed my trepidation. Buyer & Cellar, though, dismisses all those cavils with an urgent wave of Michael Urie’s gesticulating hand. As the narrator, Alex, who becomes that lone employee, Urie oozes show biz skill and mostly keeps the audience in the palm of his hand, entertaining us with what feels like an extended heart-to-heart from your most gleefully gossip-sharing gay friend. Alex has “the goods” on all Baba’s goods, and what’s more . . . what’s more . . . he becomes, for a bright shining series of encounters, practically her BGF!

Exclamation point, indeed. Urie delivers the goods with both irony and breathless enthusiasm. Whatever we think—or don’t think—about Streisand, his fascination is contagious. And playwright Jonathan Tolins wisely sets this all up with enough relevant plausibility to hook us in. Suspend disbelief, check. Alex presents himself as a struggling theater actor in LA who lost a job at the Magic Kingdom due to being testy with a bratty tot. Forced to subsist on the crumbs of the industry, he takes the Streisand basement shopping complex job because, well, it combines acting and retail—and he has experience in both.

 Alex More (Michael Urie)

Alex More (Michael Urie)

Simple projections keep us apprised of where we are in a story that manages to shift around a bit, particularly to the apartment Alex shares with his partner, Barry, who gets to voice all the catty thoughts about Streisand’s self-serving career and self-pitying bids for affection that some of us might be thinking. And Urie is not only great at shape-shifting into disbelieving Barry; he also does the woman who hires Alex with such amusing panache, I wanted more (what’s her story?). And, then, of course, he does Streisand herself in remarkable tête-à-têtes with himself. Much of the story centers on Alex learning to see Streisand’s vulnerable humanity, even as he knows she’s another order of being entirely.

Like royalty, celebrities can’t really be our friends. Though the show is very light in tone and pace, it does touch on themes significant enough for our times. Friendship, the relation of employer to employee, relation to fame and its exploitation, and, most tellingly, the cult of celebrity that feeds the fortunes of someone like Streisand but also makes her a victim of her own creation. It’s also a show about gay culture, Jews—especially but not only from Brooklyn—and fan subcultures. Tolins gives us many funny and touching glimpses into these areas without belaboring any because Alex as written, and as charmingly and engagingly enacted by Urie, is anything but a bore. The show is a joyful re-enactment of Urie’s multiple award-winning turn in the part, and with great hair this time.

 Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

The pace slows a bit when the interactions between Alex and his employer begin to seem too much a wish-fulfillment fantasy (with Alex coaching Barbra in the lead of Gypsy), but just about when our interest might flag a bit, Urie, like any capable raconteur, switches gears and begins to narrate—and his narrative voice provides some of the most entertaining aspects of the show. Or else he brings on Barry to do a deadly spot-on reading of The Mirror Has Two Faces.

There are fun set-pieces throughout, with the best being the first encounter with Streisand as she “shops” for a bubble-blowing doll for which Alex, a consummate salesman, concocts a backstory of heart-warming hardship. The two dicker in studied bartering fashion over a price that must be agreed upon. It’s a canny glimpse into a very canny customer.

My other favorite part was Urie enacting James Brolin—“Jim”—who was Streisand’s beau at the time. His visit below stairs for frozen yogurt (where else would you keep your machine but in your mall?) has a very tongue-in-cheek man-to-man quality that glimpses the therapeutic value of Alex’s role. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from having a personal store presided over by one’s own personal waitstaff?

Finally, a warning. The show might have side-effects. After seeing it I rented and watched not one but two Streisand movies. I’ve . . . never done this before.

 

Michael Urie in
Buyer & Cellar
By Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Stephen Brackett

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: Stowe Nelson; Projection Design: Alex Basco Koch; Musical Staging: Sam Pinkleton; Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward

Westport Country Playhouse
June 14-July 3, 2016