- OnStage Connecticut Critic
Me and my friend IMing on Saturday:
Me: “We’re going to Westport Country Playhouse to see Buyer and Cellar.”
Friend: “Woohoo! Is this a wine show?”
[She was drinking sangria at the time, so the connection is totally understandable.]
Me: “I don’t think so. It’s a one man show about an actor living in Barbra Streisand’s basement? Ben Brantley [of the New York Times] liked [the off-Broadway production] so I am hopeful.”
I usually walk in blind to shows because I like the element of surprise. I *did* happen to see a little bit of information about this show (see above), but that was all I knew. And man, it was way more fun than I could have imagined.
Michael Urie (best known for his role on the TV show, Ugly Betty) plays Alex Moore, a struggling actor in Los Angeles, recently terrifically fired from his day job at Disneyland, happens upon a job that seems a bit bizarre: being the sole shopkeeper in an underground mall for a woman named “Barbara.” When he goes on the interview, he discovers that it is indeed *that* Barbara sans the extra “a.”
The play’s premise is based on Streisand’s 2010 book, My Passion for Design, particularly, one element of the book: in the basement of one of the buildings on her vast estate in Malibu is the re-creation of a shopping plaza based on exhibits she saw at the Winterthur, a decorative arts museum at the University of Delaware. It has everything: a clothes shop, a gift shop, a doll shop, a yogurt machine… you name it, it’s there. So, as playwright Jonathan Tolins read through the book, he thought to himself, “What would it be like to be the only person working down there with Barbra as your lone customer?” The answer is apparently: bloody entertaining!
Tolins’ book is masterful: filled with zinging one-liners sparkling with ALL of the gay pop culture references that are laugh-out-loud hysterical. I haven’t laughed that much and that hard in a long time. The jokes ran the gamut from Bea Arthur’s extended gazes of disdain (if you’ve ever watched Golden Girls, you totally know what I’m talking about) to Judy Garland’s unexplained fluctuating weight from scene to scene in Summer Stock. Streisand fans will adore all of the references from Yentl to The Way We Were, but you don’t need to be a die-hard Funny Girl junkie to get it all.
Urie’s animated, peppy performance is outstanding. Sustaining that energy level for a full hour-and-a-half takes focus and stamina (and fortunately Tolins built in a couple of snack breaks into the script for his solo performer). Urie is lightning let out of the bottle – all of his characters that he played had distinct physical attributes so you knew who was going to come out of Urie’s mouth before he spoke. Urie’s mannerisms for Streisand were excellent without being complete caricatures. His storytelling is fantastic: engaging, endearing, and madly entertaining.
Not to be forgotten: the set design by Andrew Boyce takes the simplistic, intimate all-white set and changes it into different spaces through projections on the upstage wall, designed by Alex Basco Koch. I adore set designs like these: transformative using creative, minimal methods.
Despite all of its hilarity, the play still manages to be poignant. The work really shines a light on the loneliness of fame: how being a celebrity can preclude forming real friendships. The big takeaway for me was a quote from the show: we are struggling to create our own world to fit ourselves into – we are aspirational.