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
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
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
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.
Read more, AFTER THE JUMP...