When I first saw “Buyer & Cellar” on stage in 2013, I wrote that Jonathan Tolins’ solo comedy starring Michael Urie seemed singlehandedly to reflect the entire season in several ways. On Sunday, almost exactly seven years later, Michael Urie revived the play, performing it online in lockdown out of his own apartment, and, once again, but even more so, it reflects what’s happening now — a moment that is unprecedented in New York theater history. You can still see the performance online until midnight tonight (April 22.)
The play imagines a man, played by Urie, who is hired to work the fake mall that Barbra Streisand has set up in the basement of her Malibu home. Streisand really has created such a mall full of her collectibles, which she lovingly detailed in her 2010 coffee-table book, “My Passion for Design.”
She took the lavish photographs for the book herself, which prompts the cheeky character that Urie plays to exclaim: “How did she get her?”
The season in which “Buyer & Cellar” debuted was one of many other solo shows, of many shows based on books (albeit none other baed on a coffee table book), and of many celebrities debuting on, or returning after a long absence, to the New York stage. One can take the play as frothy, but it also offers a comment on a culture obsessed with celebrity.
We are now thrust into an era where a solo show might make the most sense, given the challenges of ensemble acting when everybody is in separate quarantine. It is now also being offered to audience members for free, produced by Rattlestick (the original theater) along with Broadway.com,and the Pride Plays, but as a fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’s COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund — all of which is a stark reflection of the times.
Beyond that, though, the very subject of “Buyer & Cellar” reflects something the live-streamed plays are all offering, although nobody says this out loud — the rare chance, from the safety and isolation of our own homes, to ogle other people’s.
This explains the fascination that viewers have had with, for example, Patti LuPone’s basement, which so enthralled viewers who glimpsed it during a live-stream interview that she’s been conducting virtual tours of it.
Just this afternoon, I saw a live-streamed reading of Douglas Carter Beane’s “The Little Dog Laughed” on Stars in the House, performed by the original 2006 New York cast. Johnny Galecki, who plays a male hustler named Alex, was performing his role in front of a wood-paneled room with a Persian rug and a stone fireplace. Galecki, of course, is now a television star, and apparently lives in a home that befits his (but not his character’s) status in life. At the same time, Neal Huff, who portrays a budding movie star, was performing in front of a far more modest and nondescript room — a white door, blank white walls, a fold-out table with a short pile of books. I certainly wasn’t meant to notice this incongruity; it wasn’t a deliberate part of the show.
On the other hand, Urie was performing in a corner of his apartment noticeably empty of any identifiable character….just white walls (or maybe the white sliding doors of his closets). This seemed deliberate — almost an act of solidarity with his viewers, and a contrast with the luxurious home that his character creates for us with his words.
Also worth seeing tonight:
The Merry Widow, Franz Lehar’s opera starring Renee Fleming, Nathan Gunn and (yes!) Kelli O’Hara, at the Met Opera, now through Friday at 5 p.m.