Thursday, July 04, 2013

Buyer & Cellar

I guess that Barbra Streisand is a legitimate target of satirists and imitators. It's not as though she simply does her acting and directing and retires to her quiet life. She has put herself out there in many ways, the most relevant to Jonathan Tolins' charming but slightly icky Buyer & Cellar being her coffee table book, My Passion For Design, a tribute to Streisand's home decorating skills, written and photographed by, yes, Streisand herself. One of the topics of the book is the basement "street of stores" that Streisand built to contain many of her very-many belongings, and the topic of Buyer & Cellar is the fictional actor Alex who gets a job running her real-yet-unreal shops.

Tolin uses this setup to present a lonely, funny, self-centered, manipulative, slightly nuts Streisand and to depict her growing-but-ill-fated friendship with Alex (played, as are all the characters, by the talented, funny, likeable Michael Urie). And as I look at the previous sentence, I realize why I had a clearly different experience of the show than the happily hysterical audience. The show is about Alex's friendship with Streisand, not Streisand's friendship with Alex, but I identified, at least a bit, with Streisand. Even as Urie played her with a slightly Norma Desmond twist to his shoulders, I saw and felt things from her point of view.

Michael Urie
Photo: Sandra Coudert
I have no issue with Tolin presenting Streisand as an egomaniac; that seems to have been proven over and over again by Streisand herself. My complaint is with his presenting her as slightly pathetic and lonely, still the little girl who wishes she were pretty, sneaking extra servings of frozen yogurt encrusted with rainbow sprinkles--and then serving her up to us for our laughter, pity, and dissection. It seems the slightest bit cannibalistic.

Which is not to say that I didn't laugh quite a lot. Tolin provides some clever scenes, starting with Streisand making an offer for one of her own dolls in her own shop and Alex refusing to lower the price. Also, Alex's scenes with his boyfriend Barry, who is initially thrilled about Alex's new job, are consistently hilarious, and even the brief appearances of Streisand's assistant are great fun.

Urie does a wonderful job playing them all. He gives the housekeeper a touch of Judith Anderson. His James Brolin is evoked beautifully with squared shoulders and a deepened voice. His Barry flails about, but doesn't go overboard. Alex is sweet and excited (and flails a bit himself). And Streisand is conjured up with a Brooklyn-ish accent, fingers waving to show off those nails, and the afore-mentioned Desmond-ish stance. All of these work delightfully.

It's also relevant to mention that Urie is extremely cute and a tad flirtatious. And, since gay men compose a significant chunk of the audience, I have to wonder if his distracting, unappealing costume (tight rust-colored jeans; tight off-white tee shirt) was designed at least in part to show off his pecs and, uh, package. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Buyer & Cellar is smoothly directed by Stephen Brackett. The scenery (Andrew Boyce), projections (Alex Hoch), and lighting (Eric Southern) economically and attractively provide simple but effective changes in scene.

All in all, Buyer & Cellar is an extremely entertaining piece of fluff. I just hope that Streisand is getting her much-deserved cut of the box office.

(row H, press ticket)

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