Michael Urie is the kind of charmed storyteller who can get away with laughing at his own jokes. As an underemployed L.A. actor with a decidedly unusual day job, he’ll drop some gem-sharp absurdity, pause to let the audience guffaw, widen his eyes in an “I-know-right?” acknowledgment, pull a face and stifle a giggle—-and fuel a whole new wave of mirth. It’s a rare talent, and Urie is pretty much pitch-perfect in the way he’s deploying it in Buyer & Cellar, a fizzy showbiz comedy about fame, loneliness, and the perils of perfectionism.
And Streisand. Let’s not forget Streisand. Jonathan Tolins‘ giddy 105-minute fable takes its cue from the diva’s own revelation, in a kind of design memoir she published a few years back, that she has what’s basically a private shopping mall in her Malibu basement, with an antique shop for collectibles and a gift boutique for whatnots and a vintage clothing store where favorite outfits and costumes live pampered, mannequined lives. “Remember, this is the part that is real,” Urie says as he sets up the conceit in the show’s first few minutes. “Barbra’s basement looks just like any other mall, except for the total lack of customers or employees. Or, maybe not. What if somebody had to work down there?”
Seconds later, he’s launched the tale of Alex More, who gets the boot from a Disneyland gig only to learn that his time on Main Street USA might make him a good fit for the sort of place where both precision and pretending are paramount concerns. We meet Alex himself, his screenwriter boyfriend, the gorgon of an estate manager who cuts the checks, and of course the lady of the house, who commends him on the quality of his merchandise and interrogates him about its provenance. “Like she doesn’t know,” he murmurs to the audience after one such inquiry, before launching into a preposterous improvisation about a tragic-hero dollmaker in Nazi-occupied Paris. It does the trick; she cracks a smile, and things only get cozier from there.
Urie’s Streisand is more suggestion than impression, so things never get too campy, and there’s no saccharine to the show; both admiration and jaundice mark Tolins’ approach to his subject, the latter courtesy mostly of boyfriend Barry, who grows increasingly dubious as Alex falls ever more under the spell of his employer—-or is she, as he insists, becoming a genuine friend?
The outcome, once that question’s tested, won’t be a gigantic surprise, but the getting there is good fun. And audiences who know Urie only as that outsize fashionista on TV’s Ugly Betty will be perhaps surprised and definitely delighted to discover that he’s a classically trained actor with considerable chops. He’s giving such a precise and well-modulated performance that Buyer & Cellar feels as intimate in the 800-seat Harman Hall as it did in an off-Broadway space a quarter the size. It’s like a great after-dinner gossip with a good friend—-who just happens to have the oddest job on earth.
The show continues through June 29 at the Harman Center for the Arts.