Review: A joyous take on the mystique of ‘Babs’ in ‘Buyer and Cellar’

Alex More (Michael Urie) takes a job in a fictitious mall owned by legend Barbra Streisand in "Buyer and Cellar" that runs at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through Sunday, Aug. 31st. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Alex More (Michael Urie) takes a job in a fictitious mall owned by legend Barbra Streisand in “Buyer and Cellar” that runs at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco through Sunday, Aug. 31st. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The young, semi-employed, full-time struggling actor Alex More waits for a customer. Like many hopeful actors who take jobs outside of their field, those with Masters degrees in acting who have Ph.D.’s in bartending, he is no different. He has a new job, fresh off the heels from his firing as Mayor of Disneyland’s Toontown, where an interaction with an overzealous child went horribly wrong.

To say he has a job in a Malibu shopping mall only paints half the picture. He has all the jobs in one mall, which exists below a house. He manages the yogurt shop and the doll shop. But this is a special yogurt shop, not just because it is actually spelled “shoppe.”

This is a mall that rests underneath the home of a legend. This is Barbra Streisand we’re talking about. Babs. Yentl. Funny Girl. And she shops there. And she haggles. And it’s hilarious.

Directed sharply by Stephen Brackett, Michael Urie is equal parts fresh, charming and smart as he grips the audience for 100 straight minutes in “Buyer and Cellar,” an off-Broadway smash that runs through Aug. 31st at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. The show, which closed this past July in New York, is both fiction and fantasy, inspired by Streisand’s book “My Passion for Design.”

That is not to say this book is the blueprint for the play. Alex makes it clear that these minutes are a work of fiction, which is true except for the mall part. The mall, oddly enough, actually exists. That disclaimer is important, however. After all, we are talking about Streisand, who Alex points out has litigation-like tendencies.

Jonathan Tolins’ snappy script, which is quick with fresh morsels of humor at every turn, treats Streisand’s book with a series of wonderment and intrigue. Like, um, what the hell is the deal with this book? Has anyone even read this whole thing? What’s with that big water wheel? And wouldn’t it be fun if someone worked at her faux mall in the basement? Alex is not the biggest Streisand fan, yet he feels these questions are important to him because, after all, as a gay man observing a gay icon such as she, “This is my heritage.”

The handsome Urie as Alex the actor is as fresh and charming as you can get. It makes perfect sense that one of the films Urie created, entitled “Thank You for Judging,” is all about his returning to Texas to observe the speech and debate finals (known in the high school world as “Forensics.”) His performance moves like a beautifully constructed Humorous Interpretation, or H.I., and his characters ooze with heart and intrigue.

Take for instance his boyfriend Barry. Barry is someone who has extreme, in-depth knowledge of Streisand. He is a passionate lover, clearly not as enthralled with the depth that Barbra has been showcasing to Alex, even launching at some point into a side-splitting deconstruction of a Streisand classic “The Mirror Has Two Faces.” Now, I love me some Barry. He is funny as hell, sharp, pointed and cynical, a perfect foil for Alex, slowly being sucked into Streisand’s web of lackeys and lieutenants.

Urie’s characterizations are spot-on, a great insight into what people around Streisand would be like – the faithful minion Sharon, a grizzled veteran on the quirks of Streisand, man’s man James Brolin, who seems to enjoy his yogurt stirred without any actual consumption, and of course, the legend herself. Alex is truly intrigued by these people who cater to this woman that lives in an alternate, insular universe, one who needs an explanation on the concept of making a return to a store.

One of the best and most hilarious moments of the show was the negotiation for a doll that Streisand wanted to buy from herself in her mall, a clear opportunity for Alex to test his resolve. “Mama wants to play,” he states with glee.

Plays like these, with a style filled with humor, certainly won’t hold up non-stop laughs for the duration. At some point, characters get real. And that certainly happened here. Urie transitions seamlessly from insecure Streisand to overtly cynical Barry, and then back to a man trying to grasp onto love in the rapid-fire fabricated city that is Los Angeles.

Where the play is most effective is in its truth. It doesn’t matter if you are a worldwide star, a struggling actor or someone looking for hopeless romance – everyone desires a companion. Streisand desires that. So does Alex. After all, a Sunday afternoon is so much better when it is shared with that very special someone.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

SHN presents “Buyer and Cellar”
Written by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Stephen Brackett
Starring Michael Urie
The Word: A zippy, 100-minute whirlwind of a performance by Michael Urie that is fresh, fun and poignant.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Tickets range from $45 – $210
The Curran Theatre
445 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

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