by Arlene Jaffe, Staff Writer
From Judy Garland, Peter Allen and Charlie Chaplin to Eva Peron, Coco Chanel and Marilyn Monroe…larger-than-life celebrities have been the subject of dramas and musicals produced both on and off Broadway.
Judging by the decibel level and anticipatory excitement pulsing through The Barrow Street Theater, much of the audience was expecting the same iconic adulation from Buyer And Cellar. Barbra Streisand, after all, was the subject here. Wasn’t she?
For a play about an icon so obsessed with detail, the set by Andrew Boyce was surprisingly Spartan, albeit in purplelavendargreyishpetalpink custom paint contrasted by hand-hewn molding and a classic Louis XVI dining chair brought up-to-date with a paperwhite eggshell finish.
In fact, when the marvelously-gifted Michael Urie entered in front of the stage as Michael Urie, he informed the audience that there would be no over-the-top impressions or movie clips or costume changes because Buyer And Cellar was a total work of fiction.
Urie explained that the writer, Jonathan Tolin, wanted the play to be less about Barbra and more about the relationship that forms between two people in vastly different stations in life. (Perhaps a nod to people who need people.) Mr. Tolin, a seasoned playwright, television producer and writer for the Academy Awards, Tony Awards and Bette Midler actually did experience a close encounter of the Barbra kind, when she offered him a piece of her Kit Kat bar.
Then, Urie displayed a coffee-table book entitled: My Passion for Design published by Penguin in 20120, which was written and photographed by Barbra Streisand about her “house” in Malibu.
When the applause subsided, Urie explained that one paragraph in the book was Tolin’s inspiration for writing Buyer And Cellar.
Streisand had a street of shops built in her basement to showcase her various collections and memorabilia. It was her own personal shopping mall: cobblestone-paved, antique-lantern-lit. A Sweet Shop with whirring frozen yogurt and popcorn machines. A Gift Shoppe with wrapping station. Along with an Antique Shop, Antique Clothes Shop (for all her costumes) and Bee's Doll Shop.
Tolin thought it would be funny if someone had to work down there and “greet the customer" whenever she came down.
Now, Urie becomes the out-of-work actor, Alex More, stepping onstage into a fictional world dominated by the “cellar” where he’s been hired to do a little dusting while impatiently waiting for the “buyer”. Urie would, eventually, play four other distinctive roles in this rollicking, riotous and thought-provoking one-man show. Barry, his boyfriend, who is a jaded and long-suffering screenwriter in the biz. Sharon, the weary and wise major domo of the Streisand compound. James Brolin, the husband. And Barbra herself.
The moment when Alex-as-shopkeeper finally meets Barbra-the-customer was the first inkling that Buyer and Cellar would be the rara avis that flies into the life of the most fortunate theater-goer. The back and forth that develops between them is the stuff of writing and acting genius. Not only the haggle between a have and have not…but also the demarcation between fame and obscurity, power and weakness, confidence and insecurity, the perfectionist and the flawed. (So not to be a spoiler, their first confrontation happened over a doll which Barbra “hondles” with Alex to buy for a better price…even though she already owns it.)
Over the next ninety-or-so minutes, the dramatic arc continued strong and steady. The audience grew more rapt and responsive with every Brooklyn story, every Hollywood nugget, every nail and nose reference, every nod to Yentl.
The more interaction between Alex and Barbra, the more he believed they were becoming friends. The more the audience learned about Barbra, the more chinks in her Donna Karan armor would be revealed: worries about her weight, her looks, her age, her son, her waning interest in shopping, even her legacy. Human frailties all.
When Alex suggested that Streisand direct or maybe even star in a movie remake of Gypsy, she becomes that funny girl the audience had been hoping for …only to have Barry burst their bubble with what could be the most scathing line of the entire show. “Who’s she gonna play. Granmama Rose?
Artfully, the most poignant moment came toward the end of Buyer And Cellar, when James Brolin enters the scene like Dr. Steven Kiley straight out of
Marcus Welby, M.D. Urie not only captured his mannerisms, body language and tone of voice, he physically morphed from his lithe, lanky self into a towering, swaggering movie star of a man. Hello, gorgeous.
Brolin tells Alex that he’s come down to the Sweet Shop for some coffee yogurt with extra sprinkles. The audience knows that the yogurt wasn’t for Brolin, even though he tries to convince Alex it is. This is a brilliant interpretation of the unsung husband who would do anything to keep his wife happy. Considering the wife, Brolin must be Saint James.
No wonder the accolades for Buyer And Cellar keep pouring in: for the actor, the playwright, the director and the entire production team. Ultimately, this is a tough love letter to a global supernova who faces the realization that perfection might not be attainable.
Unless, of course, Streisand sneaks into the theater and sees this play.