Arts Desk

Buyer & Cellar’s Michael Urie on Playing Barbra Streisand in a One-Man Show

urieExtreme wealth allows eccentricities to proliferate and blossom in its owners, turning normal folk into divas that can't function outside their own self-made worlds. And if Buyer & Cellar (currently showing at the Shakespeare Theater’s Sidney Harman Hall) is to be believed, Barbra Streisand is no exception.

When playwright and avowed fan Jonathan Tolins got his hands on My Passion for Design, a 2010 book by Streisand that includes photographs of all her homes, he found something peculiar about her famous Malibu compound: a shopping mall in the basement that’s filled with designer stores to indulge her vanity. This got Tolins thinking that someone must work down there. That idea gave way to Buyer & Cellar, a one-man comedy about Alex, an unemployed actor who stumbles into the world’s weirdest job. Michael Urie stars as a smart and unassuming gay man who befriends the entertainer, sort of, at least until his Barbra-obsessed boyfriend demands more embarrassing details.

Originally staged off-Broadway and in D.C. until June 29, Buyer & Cellar is about fame, friendship, and a singular, strange personality. Urie plays Alex (as well as Barbra) with a pitch-perfect mix of wit and sincerity. He begins the play by clarifying its scope and purpose, indicating that it’s pure fiction, so our discussion started there.

WCP: Buyer & Cellar begins with a lengthy legal disclaimer. How has that section evolved, if at all?

As far as I can remember, it’s exactly the same as it was on the first day. On the [one] hand, it is sort of legal—we do not claim that the [events in the play] actually happened—but it’s also setting up the conceit of the mall in the basement. The audience is creating the mall in their mind before Alex gets there. I think it’s a brilliant device, and a great opportunity to put the audience at ease that they’ll have a good time. It also lets me off the hook with my Barbra impression: The play moves quickly, so I can’t change into her by putting on a wig and a nose. [The prologue] lets me, as an actor, suggest her rather than imitate her.

With your impression, did you try varying degrees of accuracy only to settle on the one you use now?

The impression is less about accuracy and more about finding which Barbra we wanted. There were a few choice Barbra-isms we wanted to include, but without overdoing it. With a Saturday Night Live caricature, you only need to repeat a few beats over and over again in order to be someone else, and this play is not just a sketch. We need a whole range of emotions for Barbra, so we couldn’t create just a shell of her. What did change about my work is that I started much younger. When we began rehearsals, I was Funny Girl Barbra, which is right for the playfulness and humor of the show, but I kept being reminded that the events of the play happen in 2010. I really had to modernize Barbra in the end, so my take on her aged as we rehearsed.

Were you a big Barbra fan before you began working on the play?

I was, but I wasn’t a superfan—I hadn’t seen all the films or listened to all the albums—but I loved Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly! I have fond memories of watching the '94 PBS concert with my mom. Of course, I really immersed myself into Barbra when I got the job, and I found I knew a lot more than I thought I did. Now I’m going to be a fan for life, so when she comes on, I won’t change the radio station or a track on Pandora. She’s not just a greater singer though; she’s a great director and a really good actor.

During your Barbara immersion, was there anything that surprised you?

What surprised and delighted me was how well [playwright] Jon [Tolins] knew her. Even though the events in the play are a complete fiction, the mall is real and he uses the backstory to develop her as a character. She references things that are true, and many of her lines are based on things she actually said. There are so many gems in the play that are hilarious/touching, so it was great whenever Jon would say, “That story is real.” It’s fascinating to put real ideas into a fake situation.

Parts of the play are about what it’s like to be famous. Now that the play is a hit, have you found its insight to be true?

There’s this part in the play where Alex asks her what it’s like to be so famous, and she replies with, “The excitement is great.” I can relate to that in my tiny little way, because the gaps between the highs of performing can feel interminable. When I come on stage, there’s 500 people and they’re looking at me, but when I go back to my dressing room, there’s nobody. Still, I think that says more about show business than it does about celebrity.

As an actor, how does your skill set change when you’re in a one-man show as opposed to being part of an ensemble?

It is so different. When you’re in a cast, you have all these other actors to rely on. Not only do you share the stage and the line counts, you also share the creative and emotional experience of the show. You’re a part of something. I mean, I’m still a part of something. I’m reading someone else’s words on someone else’s set, while the lighting crew meets my cues, but no one else has this story. More importantly, no one else can carry any of the story’s weight. I have to tell the entire thing and play all the parts, while being mindful of the energy of the room. I have to make sure the audience is getting it. This is literally a show I cannot phone in—not “literally,” but, you know.

I think the dictionary now accepts the word “literally” as a form of exaggeration.

[Laughs] Right. Still, I cannot half-ass it—not that I ever would. When you’re in three scenes of a play, it’s possible to just, you know, show up. Let me tell you what skills I didn’t think I was going to use. Last year I directed a narrative film called He’s Way More Famous than You, and directing for camera is a lot like doing a one-man show. I know it sounds weird, but hear me out. At first, it’s all very collaborative: you work with actors, production designers, cinematographers, and a whole crew, but once it’s time for post-production, it’s in the director’s hands. You have to feel out the timing, the pace, and the emotional cues. During Buyer & Cellar, I’m conducting a show every night and the same instincts in the editing bay are what helped me as an actor.

During the performance, how do you respond to the audience?

There are certain lines that are extremely clever, and sometimes the audience does not always get it. If I say something funny and they don’t laugh, there are built-in pauses where I wait for them to get it because if I keep going, then they won’t laugh at all. There’s one line [where] Barbra makes my character seem silly, and I say to the audience, “If she were a man, I’d call her a perfectionist.” I say it a funny way, but it happens so quickly that I sometimes have to wait a beat for the audience to catch up.

You eat a Kit Kat bar for every performance. Are you sick of them yet?

[Laughs] I have to eat popcorn out of a bag, too. Luckily I only have to eat one bite of the Kit Kat Bar. I’ve figured it out, and I eat one whole Kit Kat every week.

That’s not too bad!

Right? I do eight shows a week, and there are four bars or whatever in a Kit Kat, which take two bites to eat. Some nights I do not want to eat it at all, so I take an itty bite of it. Some nights I’m hungry. It’s been sort of hard to know how to eat for this show. You got to have lots of energy, obviously, but you don’t want your stomach to do anything while you’re on stage. Nothing rich, nothing salty, nothing spicy. It’s tough to gauge my hunger, so overall, I’m thrilled I can use the Kit Kat and popcorn as an opportunity to temper it.

How would you feel if Barbra came to the show in D.C.?

I’m very torn on that idea. I couldn’t possibly be told that, and neither could the audience. Still, there are things in the play I’d love to do for her, but—it’d be awkward. If I just met her and someone introduced me to her, I could it see it be very boring, with her saying [does Barbra voice], “Nice to see you. Is the show going well?” But maybe she’d be flattered and say, [does exaggerated Barbra voice] “I’ve heard that show is all right!” It’s funny: Even though I play her, I have little idea of what she’s like. The mystery is part of the fun. If she saw the show, it’d be like the Heisenberg principle as applied to theater.

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