Buyer & Cellar
Urie an irresistible charmer in one-man diva-fest
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Buyer & Cellar|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
Seldom has a self-proclaimed “work of fiction” seemed so docudrama-real. This one-man show plays like an insider confessional. Buyer and Cellar (an allusion to the audience’s willingness to buy this invention) is playwright Jonathan Tolins’ depiction of a California gay man’s brief encounter with a stage and screen icon—and his eventual expulsion from Eden. (He discovers that Paradise is not enough.)
As shaped by director Stephen Brackett, this 105-minute confection proves as bittersweet as hilarious, a name-dropping tour de tabloid that, given Michael Urie’s winsomely fey performance, takes on a lot more truth than it proposes to present.
The situation starts strange and gets weirder. The setting is an alleged shopping mall in the basement of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu mansion. In this “dream refuge” wanna-be actor Alex More, fleeing the servitude of Disneyland (“Mauschwitz”), signs a confidentiality agreement–and lands a seeming golden job as the custodian/clerk of Streisand’s stores, single-handedly minding the yogurt and popcorn machines, dress shoppe, antique emporium, and gift outlet complete with vintage dolls. (It looks, the wry wit slyly intones, as if Grandma designed an Apple Store.)
Though no Streisand or even Garland aficionado (how gay can he be?), Alex is suitably impressed when Babs, “luminous skin” and all, finally appears, the proud author of her manual on interior decoration (with photos taken by Barbra herself). Incredibly, she’s eager to buy a sentimental doll from her own collection. (As a child, her one “doll” was a dressed-up hot water bottle.) Impudently but adorably, Alex insists on the original price of $850. But, finally presenting a self-made coupon, a strangely needy Barbra drives down the price to $500, a millionairess rejoicing in a useless bargain.
It’s the start of a mentorship that recalls, well, Pip and Miss Havisham, William Holden’s newshound and Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond, “The Dresser” and the actor-manager he loves and hates, and a certain nobody’s epiphanies in “My Week with Marilyn.” (There’s even an all-protective social secretary who’s the equivalent of Max the chauffeur in “Sunset Boulevard”). Awestruck but wary, as Alex comes to know this Tinsel Town “Utopia,” he tells his celebrity patron of his relation to its author Sir Thomas More. A poor little rich girl who’s lonely because, in her neighborhood, “nobody pops by,” “Sadie,” as she tells Alex to call her, shares her hard times as a “second-hand Rose” in Brooklyn—a poor-mouthing pity party that Alex’s sardonic boyfriend Barry finds hard to credit. Alex discovers that Streisand’s palace is actually a replica of a fantasy Connecticut homestead in the movie “Summer Stock,” fully realized with palm trees instead of pines. Husband James Brolin makes a cameo appearance, as if to check out the competition in the cellar. Alex and boyfriend Barry discuss in excruciating detail Streisand’s oeuvre, especially her ambivalent role in the self-serving “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”
Improbably but, given Alex’s irresistible charm as a surrogate son, inevitably, he persuades Babs into starring as “Grandma Rose” in a remake of “Gypsy” where she’s 68 and her daughter is 5. (Well, this makes up for his saying she was too old for “Yentl.”) Suddenly, she asks him to coach her in the part. As they get closer, Alex discovers that, with all her fame, Barbra’s perfect world would be one in which “I’d be pretty.” It’s a regret that Alex’s partner maliciously mocks as an insult to Streisand’s success. The lovers break up over this contretemps. Eventually Babs and Alex must as well (just as he’s finally been allowed to see the fabulous upstairs quarters)–if only to reunite the gay duo.
By the bitter but not sweet end, La Streisand, who’s compassionately portrayed throughout, tells her ungrateful minion: “You clash with everything.” Alas, Alex’s breakup with Babs comes out of nowhere and makes no sense—except to force a too-voyeuristic audience to realize that Buyer and Cellar is just a one-man character comedy, as well as a gay fantasy of slumming with a star. There’s no returning to Emerald City for Alex: He never got any ruby slippers in the first place. They’re “people who need people” but not “the luckiest in the world.”
As for Michael Urie, he perfectly pulls off his conditional comedy. Gayer than Harvey Fierstein on a roll, his Alex is quintessentially queer, brimming with campy cuteness as he messes up fact and fiction to suit his dreams. Impishly shrugging her shoulders and crunching up her puss, Urie’s Streisand is alternately shy and sibylline. Well, at least Alex doesn’t end up shot, at the bottom of a swimming pool. In this world, that’s comic relief.
Buyer & Cellar continues through June 15th at Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm and 6pm. Tickets are $30-$75, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online at Ticketmaster.com(check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BroadwayinChicago.com. (Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Sandra Coudert
Michael Urie (Alex More)
behind the scenes
Stephen Brackett (director), Andrew Boyce (set design), Jessica Pabst (costume design), Stowe Nelson (sound design), Alex Koch (video projection design), Eric Southern (lighting design), Darren Bagert, Dan Shaheen, Ted Snowdon, Daryl Roth (producers), Sandra Coudert (photos)