Perfection, artistry, magnificence. Which celebrity embodies all of these elements? Why, Barbra Streisand, of course. They are also descriptors of Jonathan Tolins’s brilliant writing and Michael Urie’s incredible acting talents in a “what if” confection, Buyer and Cellar, about Streisand’s impeccable collectables and design sense. The play is a mix of hysterical comedy genius, sardonic humor, and pithy, acerbic commentary laced and emboldened with truth.
Buyer and Cellar first appeared at the Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater for a limited time and moved to the larger Barrow Street Theater for an open-ended run which has received a number of extensions. For his extraordinary performance as Alex More, Urie has received a Drama Desk Award, a Clarence Derwent Award and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards. This sleeper hit of the season has been a surprising favorite considering it is a solo show. One reason is that its hilarity rolls the audience to the brink of the absurd, then pushes it over into the abyss. But we are laughing all the way, even as we smash into the jagged rocks at the bottom. What a way to go, with a smile on our faces.
The production’s superb direction by Stephen Brackett is incisive. Together Brackett, Tolins and Urie manifest the import of each line of dialogue spinning out the scenes. These are stacked brick upon brick to create a formidable and unforgettable masterwork. For example, in the prelude Urie in his affable, magnanimously natural and boyish Alex More persona sits on the edge of the stage and confides that the play is fantasy and the plot and dialogue could never be true. And though Streisand is “present” as are the other characters, Alex will neither inhabit nor impersonate her or them. He will just indicate who they are with a mild inflection here, a slight gesture there. The effect is not to astonish. It is to help distinguish the people for the sake of storytelling. Alex narrates and moves from present to past events with Streisand and others and it’s all made up. Tolins’s strategy is marvelous. We will not be guessing what events are real and what aren’t. The playwright has preserved the integrity of the show’s plot and characters as fictional fun. And yet…
There is a dark side which ominously threatens throughout the play. Like a malevolent jack-in-the-box, it springs up and startles us when least expected. During the prelude, Tolins hits us with truth. The setting is word for word real, all taken from Streisand’s design book (My Passion for Design) with extensive photography and descriptions of her “coastal home,” her Malibu compound and estate. Tolins prepared us for fiction, but the reality of Barbra’s “heaven-on-earth” reconstructed grounds, its excessive and ridiculous grandeur, becomes theater of the absurd. Streisand’s artful design includes a fish pond stocked with color-coordinated fish that synchronize with the color of the buildings, a barn with chickens that lay green eggs, a palatial mansion which is her formal residence and home with James Brolin and Samantha (her dog), and two other buildings.
The pièce de résistance is the barn’s basement, which is a street of uniquely designed shops – an antique shopping mall. Tolins’s description of the mall and Urie’s delivery are priceless, and hysterically funny. We cannot believe the absurdity of this reality. And it goes on. Alex tells us that the stores are filled with Streisand’s vast collections of beautiful antiques and sundries. She collected a lot of stuff over the years and obviously will not part with any of it, regardless of its usefulness or function. And there is a clothing shop where she has racks of outfits from her film and stage productions. This is obsession, perfection, attention to minute detail, hyper-organization. If she ever wants to revisit and view her collections, they are ready for her. And if she is hungry, the mall even has an ice cream/frozen yogurt parlor. Why not? How else should you spend your multi-millions?