BY NAVEEN KUMAR
Michael Urie is playing Barbra Streisand Off Broadway, and every other character in Buyer & Cellar, playwright Jonathan Tolins new one-man play which opened on Wednesday at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. An exceptionally gifted comedian and stage performer, Urie does the diva justice—and she’s just one piece of the story.
You may or may not be surprised to know that Barbra has her many earthly possessions organized into something that resembles a posh strip-mall in her basement. That is the factual part of the story. Buyer & Cellar imagines if she hired some poor (lucky?) soul to work down there, manning the shops for just one special customer.
Urie plays just the man for the job—an out of work L.A. actor named Alex, who’s just been fired from playing the Mayor of Toon Town at Disneyland. Alex is the play’s narrator and protagonist, and while he tells us about his experience with one of the world’s most bizarre retail jobs, he also plays himself and every other character involved.
Tolins’ play is well crafted, hilarious, and completely accessible to folks who know nothing about Barbra Streisand. Of course, the show’s success is thanks in no small part to Urie’s charming, whirlwind performance. I spoke to Michael about his work on the play, his choice of gay roles, and his personal feelings on the lady of the house.
Naveen Kumar: How did you approach playing different characters with only yourself to play off of? You recently directed a film about high school forensics (Thank You For Judging), and I know from my own experience, that forensics (or speech and debate) requires some similar skills, like using yourself as a scene partner.
Michael Urie: I’m so glad you mentioned forensics, because it was so helpful to have that vocabulary of popping from character to character. I had experience with forensics in high school, and [have been] reliving it all these years with Thank You For Judging. So, when I read the script I was like, ‘I get it! I get how I could do this.’
I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to actually figure out. Because comedy is all about timing, and usually you time yourself off of others. Whether it’s an audience if you’re doing stand up or if you’re doing a scene, it’s about how you play off of [that other person]. So, I was like, how am I going to play off of myself? Not only that, but continue narrating the story. That was the greatest challenge.
I’ve learned more [performing in front of an audience] than I did through all of rehearsal, because audiences tell you what’s funny.
There was no one way to create the characters, I had to attack them all in very different ways. There’s a lot of trust, obviously, in the playwright. What’s great about [John’s writing] is you could figure out how to play the character of Barbra even if you didn’t know who she was. He’s written that character so beautifully and so three-dimensionally, that I think you could probably interpret that character without any knowledge of Barbra Streisand and get really close.
NK: That was actually my next question. As the story’s narrator, Alex tells the audience from the beginning that he’s not going to “do” Barbra. Was it challenging to steer away from impersonation? How much did you know about her going in?
MU: That [line about not ‘doing’ Barbra] is such a brilliant precursor, and it takes so much of the onus off of me. Because everybody has an idea of what Barbra sounds like, she’s iconic. Even if it’s just 'Like buttah.' People have done impersonations, real impersonations, brilliantly. We didn’t want to try to do that, because it’s also not about her it’s about Alex, she’s just a character in [the play].
I think that’s part of John’s genius, that he has created something that’s meant to be an emulation—accurate storytelling rather than a series of impressions. Thank God! I don’t think I could do a real impression, certainly not without his words, I wouldn’t know what to say.
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