Among the first things the actor Michael Urie admits as he addresses the audience at the start of Jonathan Tolins’s Buyer & Cellar is that the premise of the 90-minute one-man play is “preposterous”: “What I’m going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and litigious as Barbra Streisand.”
I hope that stipulation is sufficient to keep the lawyers at bay, because the story that follows is too hilarious, and oddly loving, to shut down. In it, Urie plays all of the characters, starting with a fictional out-of-work actor named Alex More who is hired to staff the underground mall of quaint shops that Streisand has built (really — this part’s true) beneath a barn on her Malibu estate. Mostly he just waits there, in period costume, dusting and sorting and, in frequent asides, arguing with his boyfriend, Barry, about the legend of Poor Barbra: the girl who grew up with nothing nice but emerged as the woman nothing could ever be nice enough for. To Barry, Streisand is the apotheosis of revenge-entitlement gone wild, and the proof is not just in her private shopping center but in her determination to star as “Grandma Rose” in a remake of Gypsy (also, God help us, true). “I hear they’re developing new technology to photograph Barbra via ultrasound through seven layers of Sheetrock,” Barry says.
But when the great lady shows up at Bee’s Doll Shop to hondel over the merchandise (which is already hers) or to play among the decades’ worth of Cecil Beatons and Irene Sharaffs in the Dress Shop, Alex is drawn into the fun of her fantasy, and the pain behind it. Here Tolins and Urie (directed by Stephen Brackett) tread honorably, not skimping the absurdity but giving the diva her due. When Alex asks her what one thing she’d want to be true in her version of Utopia, and she answers, “I’d be pretty and everyone would know it and I’d think so, too,” it doesn’t matter that, as Barry witheringly retorts, she’s had affairs with most of her hunky leading men, and become “a symbol of unconventional beauty for an entire era.” There’s no sell-by date on self-disgust.
Urie is light and masterful; he slides among the various characters (including the current Mr. S.) with ease, and economically nails Streisand’s mannerisms without attempting an outright imitation. (She always seems to be flossing her teeth with her tongue.) The play itself is a bit less subtle, from the too-cute title to the reaching-for-it climax with its overearnest aftermath. But audacity and great humor, darkened by an underlayment of pathos, work charmingly even when they work too hard. No matter how litigious, Barbra Streisand of all people should recognize that.
Buyer & Cellar is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through May 4.