Buyer and Cellar Review: Barbra Streisand and the 2013 New York Theater Season

Michael Urie as Barbra Streisand's employee Alex (and Streisand's hand running through Alex's hair) in "Buyer and Cellar"
Michael Urie as Barbra Streisand’s employee Alex (and Streisand’s hand running through Alex’s hair) in “Buyer and Cellar”

“Buyer and Cellar,” which imagines a man (played by Michael Urie)  hired to work for Barbra Streisand at her Malibu home,  is no more important than the lacquer on Streisand’s fingernails, certainly no deeper. But it seems to sum up the Spring 2013 theater season in New York in several ways:

1. It’s a solo show.

This is the season for such shows, and they seem to be divvied up into two categories – the frivolous and the over-my-head.

There were a few in the Fall: Mike Tyson’s “Undisputed Truth” and Lewis Black’s “Running on Empty”, but the Spring has piled them on — On Broadway alone (and not counting Barry Manilow’s concert):  Ann, Macbeth, The Testament of Mary, I’ll Eat You Last.

2. It’s based on a book.

There have been many works of theater based on books. “Buyer and Cellar” must  surely be the first play based on a coffee table book  — “My Passion for Design,” Barbra Streisand’s 2010 tome about how she decorated her house in Malibu.

In it, she explains that she built a replica shopping mall in her basement, as an inventive way to store all her stuff – her costumes, her regular clothing, her antique furniture, precious jewels and bric-a-brac collected over the decades of her stardom.  In “Buyer and Cellar,”  playwright Jonathan Tolins imagines that she has hired an underemployed L.A. actor named Alex to staff the mall, and cater to its single customer, Barbra herself.

3. It features Barbra Streisand
I don’t really understand why this performer, now 71 years old, continues to exert such a powerful hold on so much of the public (hey, not just gay people.)  She is a character in two different shows this Spring, although in “I’ll Eat You Last” she is a presence that hangs over the proceedings  (the subject of many presumably true stories told by Bette Midler as Hollywood agent Sue Mengers), but never appears on the stage.

In “Buyer and Cellar,” Urie, still best-known as the catty fashion assistant on the TV’s “Ugly Betty” who grew a heart by the end of the series, winningly plays about half a dozen characters. This includes Streisand, but without any of her mannerisms — just a hint of a Brooklyn accent. “Enough people do her already — even some women — so you don’t need me to,”  Urie as Alex  explains in a prologue in the beginning. Also in that prologue is a humorous disclaimer that this is entirely a work of fiction: “the premise is preposterous. What I’m going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented, and” — he looks furtively around the room — ” litigious as Barbra Streisand”

What follows is a send-up of this celebrity — clever, delicious (but not mean),  well-researched (Tolins clearly actually read Streisand’s coffee table book cover to cover.) But one can take it as a look as well at the life of the celebrity-obsessed. Thanks to the many celebrities over the past few months who have made their New York stage debuts, or returned after many decades, this too makes “Buyer and Cellar” serve as something of a summary of the 2013 Spring theater season in New York .

Buyer & Cellar

at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater

By Jonathan Tolins; directed by Stephen Brackett; sets by Andrew Boyce; costumes by Jessica Pabst; lighting by Eric Southern; sound by Stowe Nelson; projections by Alex Koch;

Cast: Michael Urie (Alex More).

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

“Buyer & Cellar” is set to run through May 12 at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place, Greenwich Village; (866) 811-4111,

Update: Buyer and Cellar has transferred to the Barrow Street Theater

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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