Monday, July 29, 2013

theatre review BUYER & CELLAR, Off Broadway, July 1

The new one man play Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins takes a few sentences in a design book written by megastar Barbra Streisand and turns it into a humorous and touching 100 minutes of pure joy.   The play had a limited Off Broadway run last Spring before moving to a now open ended run at another Off Broadway theatre.

The book Streisand wrote is called My Passion for Design, which goes into elaborate detail about the making of her palatial Malibu home.  However, buried in the middle of the book is a small part where she mentions the "shopping mall" she has in the basement to house her numerous collection of various vintage clothes, antique dolls and other items.  Tolins used those few sentences as a springboard to fabricate the tale of struggling and out of work actor Alex More who ends up getting a job as the person who manages the series of "stores" that Streisand has built.  A series of stores that she is the only "shopper" at.

Michael Urie
At first More is unsure of what to do as he patiently cleans and organizes Streisand's vast personal collection of things waiting for Streisand to show up to look at her belongings.  When Streisand finally makes her way down into the basement, in character as if to test More, and after looking around for a few minutes, she comments "you have nice things."   The look that More gives her and the laughs that come from the audience make you realize that Tolins has found a perfect tale to portray the eccentricities of a celebrity but one that also shows her vulnerability as well. 

Tolins has written fully fleshed out characters of both More and Streisand that dive well below the superficial level of their shared interest of her "belongings" and into the past and present of each character.  His dialogue is direct and clear and concise, especially with what he has written for Streisand to say.  He is able to take the public knowledge of her and fashion an evening that is both funny and emotional in the connection that he shows Streisand having with the man who works in her basement mall.   That connection is fashioned by Tolins into a very touching and emotional one, one that, as Tolins writes it, you can easily imagine a big star like Streisand easily having with someone like More.  Of course, the character of Streisand is clearly in control, especially when she asks More to stay late one night as she is having guests over.  At first Alex things he is inviting her over to mingle with her celebrity friends, but she is only asking him to work late in case any of them want to come downstairs for frozen yogurt from the food court section of the mall.   Tolins has many plot points build throughout the play and there is also a nice bit about a throw pillow that has a nice built up toward the end.

Michael Urie is More but he also plays several other characters, including his boyfriend, Streisand's housekeeper and Streisand herself.  Every one of these characters gets their own personal voice, style and mannerisms and Urie is simply stunning in his ability to portray each of them uniquely which also seems so natural in the way that he easily navigates between them, especially in the numerous conversations they have with each other.

Urie's channeling of Streisand is more than just a simple impression or imitation.  And while he never fully takes on her voice or even makes any attempt to look like her, he manages a lot with just a simple facial expression, a pause between words or the pronunciation of a word.   In doing so, he actually embodies her and at the end of the evening you actually feel like she was there on stage and that you got to see a glimpse into the mind of this mega celebrity.

Director Stephen Brackett does an exceptional job in not only getting such an amazing performance out of Urie, but in also the ability to stage the entire play on a very small set with just a few set pieces but make it seem like the numerous locations of the play.  Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has fabricated a simple white set and lighting designer Eric Southern adds some creative projections and a lovely and colorful lighting plot to easily portray the various locals of the play.

Tolins' play is a touching yet rollicking good time with an amazing performance at the center.  While it may run about 5 or 10 minutes too long, with a few similar situations repeated to get the point across that really don't have to be, it it still effective.  It doesn't mock or ridicule Streisand, but instead paints her as an extremely wealthy, yet somewhat lonely person who just happens to have a lot of stuff that she wants to have on display to see.  If you think of all of the things you might own that are packed up in boxes in your basement, it does seem much more logical to have them on display, even if that means you have to build a mall in your basement like Streisand did.

Official Show Site

Theater Talk interview with Tolins and Urie:

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