Could there be a goofier job than playing the Mayor of Toontown at Disneyland? Well, yeah. That would be playing the faux proprietor of a faux mall of boutique shops that a lonely (bored?) superstar built to display her acquisitions in the basement of a barn on her Malibu estate. That’s the unkind but absolutely delicious premise of “Buyer & Cellar,” which came to Jonathan Tolins in a flash of inspiration when he got his hands on Barbra Streisand’s coffee-table extravaganza, “My Passion for Design.” Solo piece, lovingly played by “Ugly Betty” cutie Michael Urie, should thrive in this Off Broadway transfer.
“Winsome” is the only word for Urie in the role of Alex More, a youngish gay man who takes this bizarre job as much out of curiosity as financial need. But, being an actor, he can’t help getting into the (entirely fictional, let it be said) role of the sole proprietor of the subterranean Main Street of quaint emporia — including a toy shop, a vintage clothing store, and a functioning soda fountain — that Streisand built to exhibit all the stuff she’s accumulated. And when the fabulous star herself pops into Bea’s Doll Shop, he can’t resist playing along with the game, making up a romantic history for a doll that catches her eye — and whimsically refusing to lower his asking price when she makes an offer for her own property.
No wonder the superstar is intrigued with her new hire. And no wonder the charmed aud happily goes along with this cute game. But not Alex’s boyfriend Barry, who works himself up into a jealous snit. “I’m not a big Barbra queen,” he says, prancing around in a pique. But his snap-and-sneer putdown of the superstar puts the worm of doubt into Alex’s belief that he’s made a friend of Barbra.
Urie doesn’t exactly do impressions. But under the even-handed guidance of helmer Stephen Brackett, he does draw on a few distinctive verbal and physical tics to help us visualize Barry swishing around and talking trash, and Streisand herself playing the Lady of the Manor, tossing back her hair and clicking her stiletto fingernails. He makes short work of house hubby James Brolin and a housekeeper who thinks she’s a prison warden. His take on Alex is even more basic: he smiles, he makes a funny face, we melt.
The show is never less than amusing, but more shallow than it needs to be to keep us laughing. Tolins (“The Twilight of the Golds”) clearly respects his diva star, but he doesn’t even speculate about the psychological impulses that might compel someone like Streisand to create an elaborate child’s fantasy world — her own private Disneyland — to escape to. Does it strike him as no more than the crazy whim of a spoiled star?
The scribe is far more sensitive about Alex’s need to make a friend of his famous employer and his even stronger compulsion to throw it away. It’s the classic case of a sweet, lonely nobody who succeeds in earning the attention, even the affection, of someone whose approval he craves — and then blows it because he can’t imagine what such a terrific person would see in a non-entity like him.
Tolins handles this subtext with such subtlety that we’re hardly aware of the chill that creeps into the basement of this fantasy world, and Urie gives such a nuanced reading of Alex’s devastating social blunder that it’s a big shock when the lights go out on Main Street.
Legit Review: “Buyer & Cellar”
Barrow Street Theater; 199 seats; $75 top. Opened June 24, 2013. Reviewed June 21. Running time: ONE HOUR, 35 MIN.
A presentation by Darren Bagert, Dan Shaheen, Ted Snowdon, Daryl Roth, Martin Massman, Pat Flicker Addiss, Doug Nevin, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino. Andrew Tobias, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, of a Rattlestick Playwrights Theater production of a play in one act by Jonathan Tolins.
Directed by Stephen Brackett. Sets, Andrew Boyce; costumes, Jessica Pabst; lighting, Eric Southern; sound, Stowe Nelson; projections, Alex Hoch; production stage manager, Hannah Woodward.