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Theater Review: “Buyer & Cellar” at Shakespeare Theatre

Michael Urie stars in this comedic one-man showcase that examines the modern fixation on celebrity.

Michael Urie in Buyer & Cellar. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

When a smart, funny script and an ideally matched actor unite in perfect harmony, they give us Buyer & Cellar, a comic solo piece audiences can savor as they watch it—between belly laughs—and remember fondly for years to come. It’s only here until June 29, so make your plans. 

Actor Michael Urie, an ebullient, coltish, 90-mile-an-hour talker, capers around the stage as if he were a cast of 20, and that’s no small feat in Sidney Harman Hall. Best known as Marc St. James on TV’s Ugly Betty, Urie trained for theater at Juilliard and has many stage credits, among them a turn as Mercutio in Folger Theatre’s 2005 Romeo and Juliet. In Jonathan Tolins’s Buyer & Cellar, he plays at least five people, the two key ones being an out-of-work actor named Alex and Alex’s new employer, Barbra Streisand. 

Alex has taken a gig working in a basement shopping mall on Streisand’s Malibu estate (yes, you read that right). He’s in charge of a faux street of little shops stocked with vintage collectibles in the lower level of the “barn”—a building set apart from the main house. Streisand chronicled her creation of the place in a 2010 book, My Passion for Design, for which she provided the text and photographs. The book inspired playwright Tolins (The Twilight of the Golds) to wonder what it would be like to work, all alone, in a basement of shops with no customers save the diva herself. 

“This is a work of fiction,” Urie warns the audience when he bounds onto Andrew Boyce’s handsome minimalist set, a putty-colored trapezoidal box, set off with tasteful wainscoting and furnished with a table, a chair, and a bench in the French Provincial style found in many a girl’s bedroom in the 1960s. The events he’s about to relate, he continues, “could not possibly have happened to a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.” 

And with that, Urie, under Stephen Brackett’s deft direction, becomes Alex More, a struggling LA actor, newly fired from a job at Disneyland, where he reacted to a bratty kid with a tad too much hostility. (Some elements of this show are too raw for ears younger than high-school age.) Alex learns of a job at an unnamed Malibu estate and goes for an interview. A sarcastic factotum tells him, “The lady of the house needs someone to work in the mall in her basement . . . take care of the inventory, work the floor, greet the customer.” That’s customer, singular. 

Alex gets the gig and learns his boss will be Streisand. His boyfriend, Barry, a wannabe screenwriter with a far more cynical view of celebrity, thinks Alex should use the job to deconstruct and debunk her mythic persona. But Alex, all alone in that strange basement, slowly falls under the spell. An ornate boutique full of costumes from fabled Streisand roles looks to him “like a dress shop in Gigi, stocked with clothes from Funny Girl.” The display for the gown Streisand wore when she sang “People” in Funny Girl seemed the ultimate in iconography. “If the Ark of the Covenant was behind the chaise, I wouldn’t have been the least surprised,” he snarks. As Alex tells the story in flashback, he keeps a sarcastic distance he couldn’t maintain at the time.

After many days alone manning the shops, he finally meets La Streisand, hankering for a stroll through her mini mall. In that backhanded, manicured gesture we all know, she pushes the smooth, straight locks from her face and tawks to Alex. The real actor Urie becomes the fictional actor Alex becoming Streisand. It’s delicious. 

It dawns on Alex that Streisand just wants some company, with hubby James Brolin off on a film shoot. In her antique dolls shop, she decides to “buy” a charming French automaton. Alex invents an imaginary history for the doll—how it survived the “Battle of the Third Arrondissement” in Paris during World War II. Streisand offers $500. After a dramatic pause, Alex tells her he can’t take less than $850. She opts into his fantasy and over several weeks, she visits, and they negotiate and spar and confide. Streisand seems to take a motherly interest in Alex. “Call me Barbra,” she tells him. OMG! Alex is officially besotted. This sours his romance with the skeptical Barry, who sees Alex as incredibly gullible. 

All good things must come to an end, as Alex sadly learns. But playwright Tolins has him come away not bitter, but with a new understanding of the loneliness of celebrity, particularly cult-status celebrity, and of the essential aloneness of life in general. That more serious revelation sneaks in amid the show’s consistent hilarity, thanks to Urie’s engaging persona and flawless timing, and Tolins’s knowing script. 

This is a close encounter of the terrific kind.

Buyer & Cellar is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall through June 29. Running time is one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($25 to $75) are available online.