Review: Michael Urie in ‘Buyer & Cellar’ at Sidney Harman Hall


Michael Urie in the off-Broadway production of “Buyer & Cellar” at Barrow Street Theatre. (Handout/Joan Marcus)
June 23

At one point in the solo play “Buyer & Cellar,” the endearing protagonist, a cash-strapped actor named Alex More, is tasked with serving frozen yogurt. The stuff he’s dispensing is no chain-store concoction — it’s frozen-yogurt from a machine that Barbra Streisand has installed in a whimsical basement on her Malibu, Calif., estate. With a fascination that suggests People magazine archly filtered through Saveur, the play dwells on the swirls of coffee-flavored decadence coiling into the cup and on the thick coating of sprinkles that gets plastered on top, per the orders of the micromanaging star.

For stage aficionados, especially those with a passing interest in popular culture and boldface names, “Buyer & Cellar” is pretty much the theatrical equivalent of that indulgent dairy treat. Running through June 29 at Sidney Harman Hall, where the Shakespeare Theatre Company is hosting the second stop on the show’s national tour, this impish comedy by Jonathan Tolins imparts a voyeuristic thrill while spoofing the modern world’s fascination with celebrity. Moreover, the script’s smartly fanciful vision arrives sprinkled with delectable one-liners, as well as droll references to everyone from Judy Garland to Barbara Boxer to Sir Thomas More (author of the 16th-century treatise “Utopia” and, “Buyer & Cellar” informs us, one of Alex’s ancestors).

Directed by Stephen Brackett, the show stars a very funny and rather adorable Michael Urie (TV’s “Ugly Betty”), who often doesn’t seem to be acting as much as treating everyone in the audience as an intimate confidant. Urie (who originated the role in the successful off-Broadway production) plays multiple characters but principally channels Alex, who — after being fired from a job at Disneyland — takes a position working in Streisand’s Malibu basement. It turns out that the star has designed the space to resemble a stretch of small-town shops, complete with a doll store, a sweets emporium and a dress boutique, where she keeps old costumes. (Tolins is apparently drawing on fact: In her 2010 book “My Passion for Design,” Streisand wrote about her painstaking creation of a Malibu home that includes such an eccentric storage-facility-turned-theme-park-for-adults.)

Alex’s job is to dust the basement’s contents and to impersonate a shop clerk whenever Streisand makes an appearance in her subterranean realm. Drawing on his improv skills, he manages to engage the diva in a long bout of mock haggling over the price of Fifi, the bubble-blowing doll. The encounter breaks the ice, and Alex gradually finds himself drawn into a slightly chilly friendship with the star. But are he and Streisand really pals — or does she just view him as a toy in an oversized dollhouse? And will Alex’s growing infatuation with his employer destroy his relationship with his TCM-watching boyfriend, who takes a cynical view of Streisand’s public persona?

Moving around and in front of a cozy white set (white walls, white table, white teapot, etc.) that creates a shelter-magazine vibe on the Harman’s capacious stage, Urie employs a buoyant and flighty physicality to suggest Alex’s amused, bemused and squirming reactions to the Malibu encounters. He sometimes gives a little skip, balances on one leg, widens his eyes or covers his face with both hands a split second after sharing a particular piquant Babs-related experience, for instance.

“I felt like a fly being swatted with back issues of Architectural Digest. You know, the really thick ones,” Alex quips at one point, after viewing another expensively furnished portion of the star’s estate.

Urie also plays the singer, half closing his eyes, pursing his lips, adopting a husky vocal tone and slightly hunching his shoulders, as if on the verge of brushing a salon-treated lock of hair away from his face. He also transforms into Alex’s excitable boyfriend and briefly conjures up the hunky presence of Streisand’s husband, James Brolin.

As Alex’s life becomes crazier and he appears headed for a fall, “Buyer & Cellar” wryly muses on the vogue for aspirational and celebrity-endorsed lifestyles and ponders how that obsession fulfills — or frustrates — the normal human craving for fulfillment. We would all like our own version of utopia, that concept named after Alex’s ancestor’s writings. While we wait for that ideal world to come to pass, “Buyer & Cellar” is an excellent way to spend 100 minutes. Plan on finding some frozen yogurt after the show lets out.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Buyer & Cellar

by Jonathan Tolins. Directed by Stephen Brackett; scenic design, Andrew Boyce; costume design, Jessica Pabst; lighting, Eric Southern; sound, Stowe Nelson; projections, Alex Koch. About 100 minutes. $25-$75. Through June 29 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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