This theater image released by Richard Kornberg & Associates shows Michael Urie during a performance of “Buyer & Cellar,” in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Kornberg & Associates, Sandra Coudert)
NEW YORK (AP) — The hero in the new play “Buyer & Cellar” is offered a key piece of advice before starting his first day of work at a California mall: “Just remember, the customer is always right.”
That turns out to be especially true since the mall in question has only one customer. And that customer happens to be none other than Barbra Streisand.
So begins Jonathan Tolins’ utterly charming and often whacky one-man show that opened Wednesday at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater starring a superb Michael Urie.
The play is absolutely fictional and admittedly “preposterous.” It sprung from a photograph in Streisand’s book “My Passion for Design,” which examines the design aesthetic of her homes.
On Page 190, Tolins found a reference to the basement in Streisand’s Malibu estate, which has been turned into a private shopping mall, complete with frozen yogurt machine. The playwright then lets his imagination run riot, imagining the need for the mall to have a clerk.
Enter Urie as Alex More, a struggling actor from Wisconsin, who applies and gets the job without initially knowing he’s signed up to dust and watch over Streisand’s endless amounts of expensive stuff.
“The relentless good taste combined with the total lack of financial constraint was overwhelming,” he says. “I felt like a fly being swatted with back issues of Architectural Digest. The really thick ones.”
Regular folk having a brush with fame has already been the subject of Craig Lucas’ gentle comedy “The Lying Lesson,” in which a mysterious woman who visits a Maine town turns out to be Bette Davis.
The plot of the 90-minute “Buyer & Cellar” really just centers on Alex and Streisand getting to know each other and figuring out what the other really wants. The Streisand that emerges is an odd control freak, a damaged, needy and out-of-touch woman and yet very human.
“You worked so hard, for so long. You fired so many people. But it’s never quite perfect, is it?” Alex asks his famous boss. She replies: “No. It never is. And you’re always afraid someone’s going to get dirt on the Aubusson rugs.”
Tolins seems to have a ball tweaking aspirational and celebrity cultures.
Urie, perhaps best known for a role on “Ugly Betty,” plays all the other parts, too — the stern house manager, Streisand’s mate James Brolin, Alex’s boyfriend (an “under-employed screenwriter and habitual TCM watcher”) and, of course, Streisand herself. His Barbra is created mostly of squints and pursed lips — sometimes more Robert De Niro than Streisand — but he somehow nails it, complete with Brooklyn accent.
Under the playful and efficient direction of Stephen Brackett, Urie is funny and touching, delivering a winning, sweet performance. Tolins’ script sparkles with sly humor; the freedom he’s created in his nutty premise lends a fresh giddiness to this work. Streisand likely won’t be coming; you should.