I got to Buyer and Cellar late and only after its transfer to the Barrow Street Theatre (after a limited run at Rattlestick) and I’m pleased to report, it lives up to its hype. The one-actor play, by Jonathan Tollins, after a very funny prologue in which said actor (Michael Urie) makes sure we all understand that he is an actor and that the play is strictly a fiction—a device that would under normal circumstances distance you from the play-to-follow, but because it’s so hip-and-insider, sets up the sensibility and paradoxically draws you in—is about an unemployed gay actor in L.A. named Alex. And the job he takes to make ends meet.
The published fact upon which the play is founded is that Barbra Streisand has designed the cellar of her opulent house to resemble an elite shopping mall. The fiction is that Alex is hired as its latest curator and caretaker. And sole member of the sales staff, there to deal with its sole customer: Babs.
With this as a jumping off point, Buyer and Cellar hits all the obvious themes—star worship, the difference between admiration and reverence, the alternate universe of celebrity, the necessariness and danger of self-deception for an actor, the perils of social isolation—and etcetera—but does so with such wit and panache that “obvious” is a inducement to keep following, to see how those themes will be filtered through Alex’s (and by extension Mr. Tollins’) fresh perspective. Mr. Urie’s performance ranks easily with the great one-man evenings—Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight, James Whitmore in Paul Shyre’s Will Rogers’ U.S.A. and William Windom in A James Thurber Evening—and Stephen Brackett’s direction is both nuanced and invisible, as should always be the case with a one-actor play.
I wish the intermissionless comedy were about fifteen minutes shorter—there’s some thematic repetition and overwriting that can be thinned out, and you’d think people so sharply attuned to comedy would sense that—but then it would be perfect. And then what would Tollins, Urie and Brackett have left to aspire to when they take it on the road…?
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