April 6, 2013

"Buyer & Cellar" Gives Full Value

If you’d asked, I’d have said that one-person shows were my least favorite form of theater. So it’s been truly surprising to find that some of the shows I’ve most enjoyed this season have been solo performances. I had a lovely time when I saw All the Rage, actor and child-abuse survivor Martin Moran’s show about forgiveness and I’ve already sung the praises of Ann, Holland Taylor’s one-woman tribute to the late Texas governor Ann Richards (click here for that review).  But now at the top of my list is Buyer & Cellar, which opened this week at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.

The buyer in question is Barbra Streisand and the cellar is the “street of shops” the star created in the basement of her Malibu home to store all the things she’s collected over the years.  Seeing the shops featured in Streisand’s book “My Passion for Design,” both amused playwright Jonathan Tolins and inspired him to create a fictional situation in which an out-of-work actor name Alex is hired to tend the shops and, in the process, their sole customer.

It’s a funny premise and Tolins has filled the 90-minute show with one laugh-out-loud moment after another. But tucked in the interstices, are some poignant reflections on celebrity, loneliness and the meaning of friendship that are made even more affective by a brilliant performance by Michael Urie. 
The Julliard-trained actor is best known for his fay-gay roles on TV sitcoms like “Ugly Betty” and “Partners” but he’s also got serious dramatic chops as he showed in The Temperamentals, the moving play about the founding of the first gay rights organization, The Mattachine Society (click here for my review of that). This time out, Urie gets to combine his comedic and dramatic skills and the result is altogether winning.
Buyer & Cellar is presented as a story that Alex tells about the time he spent working in the titular cellar and Urie plays Alex, Alex’s boyfriend, who is an avid Streisand fan, Streisand’s acerbic housekeeper, the star’s husband James Brolin and, best of all, Streisand herself. 
Urie’s Streisand isn’t a full-blown impersonation but with a twist of his shoulders, tilt of his head and the Brooklyn inflections so distinctive to her voice, he manages to capture the keen intelligence, the sharp defensiveness and the underlying neediness that define the woman. It's a bravura performance.  

As my theatergoing buddy Bill and I made our way across Sixth Avenue for dinner at the nearby restaurant Morandi, I couldn’t help wondering what the famously prickly star might think of this portrayal of her or even if she might sue (even though the play actually begins with the disclaimer: “What I'm going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”)

The odd thing is that I suspect Streisand might like it. I sure did. And I’m pretty sure you would too.

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