Michael Urie understands completely why one person in particular has not been to see “Buyer and Cellar.” He’s often asked about it, of course, but early in the run of the off-Broadway hit — which he has performed more than 400 times — he settled in his own mind the question of why Barbra Streisand probably shouldn’t come to see the show, in which Urie plays an unemployed actor who takes a job in, of all places, Streisand’s basement. ¶ “I think it would be so bizarre for her to see it,” he said recently, folded amiably into a chair in a lounge in Sidney Harman Hall. “Because it’s not real. It would be very odd for her to see these fake things. And we have no idea, either, if what we show is anything like what she’s like.”
Many other famous people, though, including Harry Belafonte and Bette Midler, have come, along with a multitude of mere mortals, to watch Urie spin the tale — concocted out of whole cloth by playwright Jonathan Tolins — of an actor named Alex More, who is hired to work as a clerk in “the mall” built into the cellar of a house on Streisand’s oceanfront Malibu estate.
The 90-minute piece, in which Urie plays all of the characters, including Alex’s hilarious star-struck boyfriend, Vincent, and, yes, Barbra her very own self, has proved so popular that Urie is taking Alex and Vincent and Barbra on the road. The first stop was Chicago. And now, Washington gets “Buyer and Cellar” for a 12-performance engagement beginning Friday in Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall.
You can count on one hand the number of marquee actors who tour with a show these days in which they’ve made a New York splash. Rarer still are the occasions that their national jaunt launches from off-Broadway. It’s a measure both of the appeal of “Buyer and Cellar” — still running on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village — and the devotion to it of Urie — best known for playing Marc St. James on the ABC comedy “Ugly Betty” — that the piece is flouting convention with a multi-city run.
“I’ve never experienced this kind of success with any play I’ve written,” Tolins said in a telephone interview. “It’s just had this magical effect on people.”
“Buyer and Cellar” is not an exercise in celebrity-worship; indeed, Tolins, who lives in Connecticut with husband Robert Cary and their two children, and writes for both theater and television, says he has never been an obsessed Streisand fan. As a dramatic subject, though, she fascinates him. “What I love about her as a character is that she is this indomitable mega-star, but also a Jewish lady from Brooklyn. This weird combination of Marilyn Monroe and my mother.”
It was Streisand’s actual cellar that inspired “Buyer and Cellar.” In 2010, she published a book, “My Passion for Design,” in which she talked about one of the homes on her Malibu compound, whose construction and design she oversaw. To Streisand’s exacting specifications, the decoration of each room was based on the work of a different, important interior designer of the past. Most astonishing of all, perhaps, is the basement, which has been turned into a narrow “street” of village shops — an antique doll store, a sweet shop, a dress store — straight out of a period movie. (The dress shop contains the costumes she actually wore in her movies, including “Funny Girl,” for which she won an Oscar, and “Hello, Dolly!”)
Neither Tolins nor Urie has ever been invited to see this extraordinary cellar.
It just so happens that I have.
I went to Malibu in the fall of 2008 to interview Streisand, on the occasion of her being named one of that year’s recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. Before sitting down with her in the main house, where husband James Brolin was watching a video on a vast movie screen and Sammie, her Coton du Tulear, a dog breed from Madagascar, padded around, I was taken by her assistant for a tour of the house a few hundred feet across the gorgeously sculpted property. It was The House, the one that would later be the subject of her book — and Tolins’s play.
“Instead of directing a film, I directed the building of a house,” Streisand would tell me later that afternoon. The tour not only included a walk-through of Brolin’s sprawling upstairs bathroom, but also a descent down a winding staircase into what I’d describe as an enchanted catacomb of vintage retail. I’ve since reported to friends that the attention to detail in these boutiques — inside the candy store, I recall, was an antique taffy-making machine — would put Smithsonian curators to shame. There was so much to take in, I almost started to hyperventilate.
“There’s a mall with shops where she keeps her things,” Urie’s Alex recounts at the outset of “Buyer and Cellar,” speaking in the voice of a woman named Sharon, who hires him. “Sometimes she likes to go down there, but she doesn’t like to be alone.”
I went to “Buyer and Cellar” very early in its initial run, at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, on Waverly Place, partly because the coincidence of my having been in the cellar made it irresistible. The play develops the idea of the imposing Streisand commencing a playful battle of wits with Alex as she wanders one day into Bee’s Doll Shop and inquires after the price of a doll, which of course she already owns. Alex makes up a price on the spot, telling her it’s $850. “I’ll give you 500,” Alex-as-Streisand says, to which Alex-as-Alex replies: “I’m sorry, the price is non-negotiable.”
The recruitment of someone to be a pretend salesman in a make-believe emporium was Tolins’s own whimsical fabrication, an idea that came to him after seeing the book in a store. He pitched a humor piece about it to the New Yorker, which turned him down. And then it was suggested to him that he turn it into a play, with “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson in mind.
“When I went through ‘My Passion for Design’ I kept notes about anything that caused any intense reaction in me, anything that I thought was funny or poignant or crazy,” Tolins said. “And then I used just about every single one of them.”
That Ferguson was unavailable opened the “Cellar” door to Urie, a 33-year-old Texas-born Juilliard graduate whose résumé included a turn as Mercutio in a Folger Theatre production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The success of the piece no doubt owes something to the actor’s easygoing charm. “The audience falls in love with Michael the way Alex falls in love with Barbra,” the playwright observed. “All of my mother’s friends said they wanted to take him home.”
“It’s been good to me,” Urie said. “I’ve been doing this play alone for the last year. If anybody knows what it feels like to be trapped in a basement, it’s me.”
Over the years, I’ve found that in interviewing famous people, the truism tends to be that while you meet them, they rarely meet you. Whatever bond exists lasts only so long as there are empty pages left in your notebook. My transaction with Streisand conformed to that norm. But I do have to say that, when years later I sat down to watch “Buyer and Cellar,” the experience of having been in that cellar came back very powerfully. It was touching, really, how well Tolins, Urie and director Stephen Brackett conjured the place, and more than that, illuminated something I had sensed, that in the dream basement of hers dwelled a nagging desire to be more fully understood.
The notion that he might have got it right gives Tolins no small amount of satisfaction. Some of Streisand’s friends have come to the show and shared with both the playwright and the actor how much they enjoyed it, even if they’ve added, “It’s not for her.”
“I’ve had people say to me after the show, ‘But did you have this job?’ ” Tolins recalled. “They don’t believe me when I say I didn’t — and, of course, I’m incredibly flattered.”
Buyer & Cellar June 20-29, Sidney Harman Hall, Shakespeare Theatre. Tickets $25-$75; 202-547-1122.