A Tale of Two Obsessions
By Geary Danihy
It’s a fiction. It’s a fantasy. Playwright Jonathan Tolins gets that out of the way right from the start of Buyer and Cellar, which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse. Well, yes, all plays are fictions, are fantasies, so you might think the playwright is stating the obvious, but given the subject matter he wants to make it perfectly clear that he made all of this up (well, most of it). It’s a one-man, “What if…?” play that starts with a well-documented fact: Barbra Streisand’s basement in her Malibu home is basically a mall populated by quaint shops and boutiques where she displays her “stuff.” The fantasy? Well, what if Streisand required a shopkeeper to work at the mall, dust the doo-dads and assist her when she “shops”? That’s the basic premise of this hilarious confection that’s a send-up of materialism, fame and fortune, and perhaps something more.
Alex More (Michael Urie), an out-of-work actor, gets a call from a former paramour alerting him to the job opportunity. He answers the ad not knowing who “the lady of the house” actually is and lands the job. What follows is a series of interactions between More and Streisand in the surreal world of her basement, interspaced with More’s conversations and confrontations with his boyfriend who, at first, is agog that More has landed this job but eventually begins to snipe at the Streisand legend.
Urie, who starred in the Off-Broadway production of the play, as well as on tour and in London, received numerous awards and nominations for his performance, and it’s easy to see why, for he not only creates a believable Alex, he also gives us “Sharon,” Streisand’s major domo, “Barry,” Alex’s excitable boyfriend, a touch of “Jim” (Streisand’s husband, James Brolin) and a moment or two of Broadway legend Arthur Laurents, all in a non-stop monologue that has him leaping, spinning and darting about the stage with only a table, a chair and a coffee table with which to work. You never actually see the “mall” he works in, but Urie, under the direction of Stephen Brackett (who directed the original productions), is able to bring it to life -- the doll shop, the dress shop, the whole strange world Streisand has created.
Although the evening generates a lot of laughter, there’s an underlying theme that gives the play weight, and that is loneliness, for if people really do need people, then the acquisition of “stuff” cannot adequately fill that need. Then there’s the self-doubt about one’s physical beauty, a theme that has run through many of Streisand’s films, no more so than in The Mirror Has Two Faces, a movie that “Barry” does an incisive critique of, suggesting that it’s a take on Beauty and the Beast, with Streisand playing both parts.
Finally, the play deals with, and is itself a representative sample of, what we expect of those who achieve stardom, and the perverse enjoyment we get when the idol is found to have, if not feet of clay, at least human feet that often stumble or turn in the wrong direction. Thus, there’s a certain bittersweet quality to Buyer and Cellar, for we may come away chuckling but, in retrospect, we might pause to consider the thin line between comedy and tragedy.
Buyer and Cellar runs through July 3. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.