By Karen Isaacs
When Buyer and Cellar opened off-Broadway in 2013, it was an instant hit. One reason was the play itself about celebrity hubris; the other reason was the performance of Michael Urie.
Now Connecticut audiences can get a chance to see both the play AND the performance. Urie is at Westport Country Playhouse through July 3 performing this piece that sends up Barbra Streisand. In fact Channel 13, New York’s public television station is filming a performance for airing sometime next year.
Buyer and Cellar is not a play with a deep message; you won’t be pondering its meaning for days after seeing it. Instead you will leave the theater with a smile on your face.
The show opens with Urie telling us that this is a work of fiction; that the events did not happen. Why the necessity for this? Partly because some of the true parts – he alerts us when they occur – are so over the top that you would think they are made up.
But the main reason is, I suspect, a recommendation by playwright Jonathan Tolins’ lawyer. For this play which is really a satire is set mainly in the Malibu home of La Streisand.
In 2010, she published a coffee table book, My Passion for Design that described the construction and furnishing of this pseudo-New England house complete with barn and waterwheel. Since she’s known for her control freak personality, she not only wrote the book but photographed it as well. She may well have operated the printing presses, also.
What’s real is that she took an idea from the Winterthur Museum in Delaware that houses one of the major collections of Americana including furniture, glass, china and more. The Museum displays some of its collection in a series of shops, as if they were for sale. Streisand – who is known for collecting and shopping almost as much as for anything else – thought this would be a fabulous way to display her multiple collections: dolls, clothing, hats, and more. So she had built in the cellar of the barn, a “shopping mall”.
The fiction is that Streisand hired someone to staff the shops – dusting, arranging, and sometimes interacting with her when she visited “her” mall.
Alex Moore is the out of work actor who is interviewed by Streisand’s assistant and hired. He whiles away the days, dusting, re-arranging and fantasizing about meeting the great Streisand. One day, it happens: Barbra comes down to the mall and, into the doll shop, Alex “sells” her an antique doll using his acting chops to create a reality for her. He even refuses to negotiate the price of the doll, though Barbra ultimately triumphs; she just “happens” to find a coupon that brings the price down to exactly what she wanted.
Streisand begins to visit more frequently, though there are still long days of nothing to do for Alex. One night, Streisand wants him to stay late so that her dinner guests can come down to get frozen yogurt – yes, there is a sweet shop with both popcorn and frozen yogurt machines! Of course, no guests arrive but after they leave, Streisand does. And just a few minutes later, her husband James Brolin arrives wanting another frozen yogurt.
All goes well – he even “coaches” her as she thinks about a film remake of Gypsy (this was really talked about, but has not come to pass). He, in fact, becomes somewhat charmed or smitten by Streisand as she tells him stories of her childhood. He begins to view her as a “friend” which Sharon, the assistant tries to warn him against. Even Barry becomes annoyed with his sympathy for her apparently sad childhood: after all she is now a celebrity with money, fame and talent. Barry things, Streisand should “just get over it.”
As can be expected, one day he annoys Streisand and he is gone.
As Alex (Michael Urie) tells us this story, he becomes the various characters: Vincent, the guy he told him about the job; Sharon, Streisand’s house manager; his boyfriend Barry who both adores and is annoyed by Streisand; James Brolin, Streisand’s husband; and, of course, Streisand herself.
He tells us up front he is not going to imitate Streisand, but he manages to create the
illusion with some mannerisms and vocal techniques. No one would think he IS Streisand, but if you are aware of her, you will recognize her in his performance.
This play depends on a stellar performance as well as an audience willing to accept that his illusions are real. Urie does this expertly. He is chatty and friendly with the audience, he does not overdo gay stereotype mannerisms, he moves seamlessly from character to character. And he does show us how he views Streisand, but also his inner life.
Humor is a big part of the success of this show, it has lots of funny lines. Plus, some of the situations and “facts” including the existence of the shops themselves are so absurd as to be funny.
In reality, this is the off-Broadway production; Stephen Brackett is still the director, and the design elements replicate it. Andrew Boyce has created a bland set (beige walls, chair rail,) that is colonial in tone.
Now of course, you can find a deeper meaning in it. It is a commentary not only on our celebrity fascination but how those with celebrity and power often lose sight of the realities of the world. The begin to think that not only the earth but the sun revolves around their wishes and commands.
So, if you are looking for enjoyable but not weighty evening at the theater, check out Buyer and Cellar through July 3, at Westport Playhouse, 1 Playhouse Square, Westport. For tickets visit westportplayhouse.org.