With Buyer & Cellar, playwright Jonathan Tolins and star Michael Urie take on the legend of Barbra Streisand and the cult of celebrity with riotous results.
Urie tells us he will be playing a guy named Alex More and prefaces the play by reminding the audience that what it is about to see is a work of fiction. Then he hauls out Streisand’s very real, quite overwrought 2010 picture book, “My Passion for Design,” which gives readers an extensive tour of her lavish home and brings credence to this outrageous tale.
After being fired from his job at Disneyland’s Toontown for an indiscretion involving a churro, Alex finds himself at the vaulted gates of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu mansion. He is admitted by Sharon, the diva’s all-around sergeant-at-arms, who tells him that he’s been given the job of managing a sprawling subterranean shopping mall constructed beneath the barn of the estate. The only customer he can expect to see is the occasional drop-in from Streisand herself, and for that he must keep all of the shops clean and ready for business.
It’s all quite puzzling to Alex, but a paycheck is a paycheck, so he assumes his post as the sole employee of the desolate mall, whose monotonous silence is relieved only by the whirr of the frozen yogurt machine in the corner. When Streisand herself finally appears, it’s to quibble over the price of an antique French doll that she already owns, making Alex wonder just how crazy she is. But as her visits become more frequent and their talks become more personal, a relationship develops that seems to be deepening into something more… or is just a figment of the young man’s imagination?
Urie is perfectly cast here, delivering great comic timing and charm to spare. He interprets five characters — the aforementioned Alex and Sharon: Alex’s boyfriend, Barry; Streisand’s husband, James Brolin; and the legend herself. Though he claims at the outset that he’s not here to do impersonations, his Babs sounds like a combination of Ruth Gordon, Cher and Don Corleone…and it’s a scream. His Brolin’s not bad, either.
The actor’s gift for storytelling, punctuated by his limber physicality, sets the hook and draws the audience into this bizarre tale. And just when he thinks he’s given us too much to swallow, he whips out “the book” as proof of his veracity.
Wicked without being unnecessarily cruel, Buyer and Cellar takes jabs at the cult of celebrity while reminding us why we’re so fascinated by it in the first place. Streisand’s eccentric behavior is counterbalanced by nice moments of humanity — awkwardly comforting a distraught Alex or revealing a painful childhood secret. But then Barry makes Alex sit down for a screening of Streisand’s 1996 ego trip, The Mirror Has Two Faces, to dramatically (and hilariously) demonstrate the extent to which the star is self-absorbed. It’s delicious fun.
Buyer and Cellar plays Tuesday-Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m. through August 17 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles. Tickets can be obtained online or by calling (213) 678-2772.
Kurt Gardner is a Los Angeles-based marketing professional and theater critic whose love of odd culture is boundless.