Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the folowing review of Michael Urie in BUYER AND CELLAR at the Westport Country Playhouse
Buyer & Cellar (Westport Country Playhouse)
I honestly can say that there are few instances when you go to see a show – theatre, comedy, music, or otherwise, when it is from-start-to-finish a knock-down, drag-out, smashingly fabulous time – when a premise is fresh and unique, when the writing is smart and crisp, and when the performers (or performer) are engaging and altogether masterful. But that is precisely what you get with Jonathan Tolins’ Buyer & Cellar at Westport Country Playhouse. This one-man show starring the incredible Juilliard-trained Michael Urie and expertly directed by Stephen Brackett is a knee-slapping, sidesplittingly funny 100 minutes of sheer brilliance.
But how could it not be? In the program notes by author Tolins, he says, “It all began when my husband brought home a copy of the 2010 coffee table book My Passion for Design by Ms. Streisand…the story of Barbra’s Malibu dream house.” For me, the once little girl who loved her Barbie Malibu dream house, this evokes visions of all the unimaginable accoutrements one could possibly have in an abode. For Barbie it was the walk-in closet, swimming pool, and (egad!) an elevator! But for the Babs? Among other things, it is a subterranean mall – yes, I said a mall! A shopping mall. In her barn basement. It is “just like any other mall, except for the total lack of customers and employees,” the play’s protagonist Alex More tells us. Okay, catch your breath and read on because this is the real part: In it is a street of shops displaying all of Babs’ memorabilia including a doll shop, a “gift shoppe,” an antique clothing boutique, a popcorn maker, and a whirring frozen yogurt machine. You just can’t make this stuff up.
So, let’s be honest. Tolins’ didn’t exactly come up with the idea himself – credit to Barbra for that pure, folly – but what he did do, and so magnificently, I might add, was to create a zany yarn about a man who gets fired from Disneyland only to be hired by Barbra’s snippy estate manager, Sharon, to “work” at the mall. And by work, he must find ways to amuse himself for eight hours a day (unless there’s overtime) five days a week until his “employer” graces him with her presence. And grace him, she does. But how, you’ll have to buy a ticket to find out.
Now let’s talk about Michael Urie. Oh. My. God. I was exceptionally fortunate to catch him in his 2012 Broadway debut in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and I already knew then that he was box office magic. As the conniving sycophant Bud Frump, he stole as many scenes as he was in – yes, all of them. And then who can forget his portrayal of the uber catty brownnoser Marc St. James in ABC’s Ugly Betty? (He’s good at playing suck-ups but that is very different than his real persona, which we found to be utterly delightful in our Pillow Talking interview) As Alex More in Buyer & Cellar, he has no one to talk to but himself most of the time – but when he’s talking to someone else (breaking the fourth wall the entire time) he is all of the other characters, including his partner Barry, Sharon, James Brolin, and Barbra herself. He deftly slips in and out of each characterization with ease – but the best, absolute best is when he is the Babs. He “nails” her every quirk from her gestures, mannerisms, tosses of her hair, and her tone of voice.
There isn’t a dull moment to be had. Urie is campy without being over-the-top. The show is unadulterated whimsy without making your teeth itch. Tolins honors Barbra at the same time he’s spoofing her, but does so with what only can be seen as respect and adoration. What it really all comes down to is some intimate, albeit comical, very human connections.
Minimalist is the only way to describe the set – and it needs not be more. The story is bold and colorful enough to need nothing else. Thanks there to Andrew Boyce for scenic design. Shout-outs to Jessica Pabst for costume design, Eric Southern for lighting, Stowe Nelson for sound, Alex Basco Koch for projection, Sam Pinkleton for musical staging, and Hannah Woodward for production stage management.
Urie originated the role in 2013 and has played it innumerable times – but there have been others who have tackled the many faces of Alex, Tolins told us at the after-party. Unapologetically, I will state that if I see it again starring anyone else, they’ll have very big shoes to fill. Urie’s the gold standard in my book. We also asked Urie if Barbra has seen it – he told us her “people” have, but she hasn’t as far as he knows (in fact, he said it would throw him off completely if he knew she was there!). But I can tell you now, she’s missing out as you’ll be if you don’t get to Westport Country Playhouse before July 3!
In order to successfully pull off a 90-minute intermission-less one-man show in today’s multi-media, technology-driven society where attention spans longer than 6-second Vines and Snapchats are at a premium, you need a good actor. No, strike that. You need an engaging, charismatic, talented actor who can capture an audience’s attention and hold it. Rare indeed today. I can count maybe a handful of successful one-person shows in the past and that was when attention spans were longer. There was the iconic one-man show with Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Larry Luckinbill in Lyndon, Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the works of Eric Bogosian and Spalding Gray.
Multi-hyphenate and multi-talented stage and screen star, Michael Urie, fulfills all of those requirements. In Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Buyer & Cellar, Michael is totally captivating as the out-of-work actor who gets a job in Barbra Streisand’s underground private mall. While the story is fictional (although Streisand’s mall is not), the laughs are real and plentiful. Michael makes the 90-minutes fly by. Not once did I have heinie itch or clockwatching-itis. Michael not only plays the main protagonist, Alex More, but he has Streisand down to a science. With a mere tilting of the shoulders, a swipe of his hand sweeping back imaginary hair (Babs’ signature body gesture) and a husky voice somewhere between Flatbush and Park Slope in Brooklyn, he captures and conveys the essence of Barbra Streisand. But wait, there’s Mooooore as his Babs would say. Michael also plays to perfection and a plethora of laughs, actor James Brolin, Streisand’s husband, More’s cynical partner, Barry, and Streisand’s snarky assistant. Michael seamlessly glides from one character to another like a knife through butter.
In an interview with Pillow Talking, Michael calls the play, written by playwright Jonathan Tolins, brilliant – and it is. According to Jonathan, he became obsessed with the idea of Streisand’s mall after his husband brought home Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book, My Passion for Design (a prop which Michael uses to good advantage in the play) in which Streisand’s private underground mall is mentioned. From there, the concept became an essay to blog article and finally to a play. While the Tolins-esque pretend world is minimalist in nature, the stage consists of a few pieces of furniture, one actor, it is rich in vibrant imagery that is conveyed via great writing, acting, and staging.
And speaking of staging, Stephen Brackett did a masterful job of directing. Obviously, the fourth wall in a play like this is non-existent, and Stephen has deftly created a situation in which the character Alex More becomes our BFF as he casually relates his adventure in Streisand’s underground world. We the audience feel privileged in Alex’s choosing us as his confidants and listeners.
As Michael said in our interview, the play is more than just about an out-of-work actor getting a job in Streisand’s mall. It is about communication and relationships. Kudos to the historic Westport Country Playhouse for bringing us this wonderful piece of theatre.