Last night, live on YouTube, the Jonathan Tolins show Buyer & Cellar rose again. The one-man show originally ran in 2013–14 — a runaway success, winner of several awards for best solo performance, a jewel-box showcase for its immensely charming star Michael Urie. On April 19, a consortium of producers (Broadway.com, Rattlestick Theater, and the Pride Plays) mounted the online revival as a benefit for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund; at various points during the livestream, a banner reminded us where to give. (The show is available till 11:59 p.m. Wednesday night.) At one point in his introduction to the event, Urie held up a BC/EFA red donation bucket, the kind Broadway performers have been brandishing for decades. I should have expected it, given that the play addresses the totemic power of objects, but it’s still a surprise to learn which artifacts of the Time Before give us pain.
As of this writing, the YouTube ticker indicates that the production has raised $50,062. Hurray! But I admit that I was watching with a more selfish eye, to see how a well-produced, much-rehearsed drama works on our laptop screens. There has been a bit of a public back-and-forth about whether or not new theater can go out over the airwaves (broadbands?) without losing everything that makes it vigorous and exciting. And here it is, at least for one type of show: a clear answer.
After five weeks of valiant internet productions that looked a lot like readings (even when they weren’t), Buyer & Cellar is the proof-of-concept for low-budget live-capture. It turns out that even without an audience laughing and rustling, a 100-minute comedy can be funny. You don’t need to turn it into ersatz cinema (the thing felt live, it felt like theater), nor do you need to steer into the short-attention-span successes of the best TikTok theater content. Here was Buyer & Cellar recognizably as itself, delivering the text and the interplay of thought-over-time. I bought it, people; I was sold.
The play itself is eerily appropriate for quarantine. Tolins was initially inspired by Barbra Streisand’s book My Passion for Design, in which she revealed her bizarre display solution to Having Too Much Stuff: a huge basement stage-set mall, with a “gift shop,” a doll “store,” and a clothing “boutique” that archives her old costumes. Tolins imagined an employee for such a place, an actor who might be hired to cater to one such ur-customer. Alex (Urie) gets the gig, and he’s starstruck but also capable of keeping his head — he stands firm on a doll’s “price” until La Streisand swans in with a coupon she’s made herself. The play’s version of Barbra is grand but nervous, retreating to the frozen-yogurt counter in the basement even when she has guests upstairs. As the playwright notes in his introduction, “It’s about staying home when being around other people doesn’t feel safe — but still yearning for connection.” It’s also, though, an absurdist comedy about a few other things we’ve all noticed during the Pause: the fragility of celebrity, the poison of “aspirational” shopping, the way a lonely job sharpens each interaction, the ghastliness of an empty utopia.
This version of Buyer & Cellar took place in the corner of Urie’s living room, lit by three ring lights that cast a flattering glow whenever he came in for his iPhone closeup. Nic Cory directed, though Stephen Brackett, who staged the original, was also credited; Urie was clearly drawing on his long history with the character and the work he and Brackett did together years ago. Paul Wontorek directed the livestream itself, and maybe it’s the hunger for content talking, but the fact that they switched between two camera angles seemed as technologically sophisticated as the moon launch. (The first time they changed to Camera Two, Twitter gasped.) Urie’s shelter-in-place cameraman was his partner Ryan Spahn, who was also in charge of animal-wrangling their cute pup. People who need people are the luckiest people in the world, but people who live with people who can shoot their livestream are luckier still.
It won’t be easy to replicate this success. First, you need the right play. The one-man show will be the easiest to capture onscreen: The relationship in solo work is always primarily with the audience, so the camera-eye makes a decent substitute for the theatergoer. (Cf. the filmed theatrical version of Fleabag.) Also, Buyer & Cellar contains the right type of humor for the zero-audience set-up. Tolins writes jokes that don’t exactly have punchlines; his language moves with enough speed you rather appreciate the silent surroundings so you can catch everything. Furthermore, Urie was always the best farceur for Tolins’s comedy — gifted at a kind of giddy, whizzing quality. This production serves as a template for how to best serve actors like Urie: You need to give them room to move. Setting up in the corner gave the show a forced perspective, in just the same way the raked stage does. Thanks to the V-shaped playing space plus a wide-angle lens, when Urie moved back just two steps, he seemed to go very far indeed. When he came close to loom in our laptop window, it made you gasp.
Something else I learned from Buyer & Cellar: We don’t always know which plays are the serious ones. I had thought that the show’s original outing was a French macaron: Ridiculous and sweet, it didn’t linger on the palate. When I was making my list of productions of the 2010s that steered my thinking, I waved to it but didn’t stop. Yet wrap the pandemic around something, and it changes. Performed to an audience isolated and in fear, Buyer & Cellar sounds deeper notes — ones that have always been in the text, but that I hadn’t heard. You know, I think we might have many such comedies. Certainly we have many such viewers, leaning closer to hear them. Now is their time.