Alex in wonderland: Minding Streisand’s mall proves trip into loopy luxury in ‘Buyer & Cellar’
“Buyer & Cellar” by Jonathan Tolins, starring Michael Urie, at Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place through June 15. ★★★
By Nancy Malitz
At last it’s summer here, the season for ice-cream cones and long walks by the water and books with fun as their chief nutritional value. It’s also prime for a Broadway in Chicago show on this fancifully ridiculous premise — that Barbra Streisand, who has designed a “shopping mall” in the basement of her own home, drives a hard bargain to purchase a doll, which she already owns, from the fella she has hired to tend the shops. And he says No.
Thus begins a playful and completely fictional series of encounters between La Streisand, who’s intrigued, and wide-eyed Alex — who cannot believe the situation he has landed, after struggling to make ends meet in L.A., doing the stuff that out-of-work actors do.
“Buyer & Cellar” is a tale told by Alex, who brings various characters to life in the telling, including Streisand, macho hubby James Brolin, and Barry — Alex’s apoplectic partner from Brooklyn, who just happens to know everything there is to know about Barbra, in a love-hate cultish sort of way.
The virtuosic and very funny Michael Urie originated the role of Alex in this one-man off-Broadway show by Jonathan Tolins. (Urie’s perhaps best-known as the sneaky fashion assistant Marc St. James on the TV series “Ugly Betty”.)
Urie is now at Chicago’s Broadway Playhouse in what’s billed as the start of a national tour — next up are Washington D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco. Meanwhile, the show’s still going strong in New York, with one change of theater and two changes of actors — Barrett Foa, from “NCIS: Los Angeles,” has just taken over the role.
As Alex tells it, he had been fired by Disneyland and was down on his luck when he landed the temp job of his dreams — to show up daily at a Certain Address, the significance of which he discovers only after he arrives. His job is to mind “the shops” in the basement, dust off the tchotchkes and, as it turns out, occasionally entertain visits from the lonely woman of the house herself.
The idea for this “gay guy meets the Goddess” play came as Tolins paged through a lavishly illustrated 2010 coffee-table book called “My Passion for Design,” written and photographed by Streisand, about the creation and decorating of her Malibu compound.
The project, as she explained at the time of the book’s publication, came from a need to burn off some creative energy when a movie deal fell through, and it does indeed document the basement mall, which she envisioned as a place to put her collections of antique objects, some Sarah Bernhardt memorabilia, vintage clothing, a sweet shop and the dolls.
Below is a video she produced for the talk show rounds she made at that time — rare openness for a celebrity long forced to live in super-star isolation. The basement tour begins at the 7:35 mark, dolls and all.
Alex quickly senses that the acquired tchotchkes have deep meaning to Barbra, who grew up very poor in Brooklyn, with a stepfather who was mean to her, and fled as soon as she could. (She once told Oprah on television, “I built the doll shop because when I was a kid my doll was a hot water bottle. When you don’t have things you have to use your imagination.”)
But Alex’s boyfriend Barry, proud Brooklynite, is having none of this. In a diatribe that’s typical of the play’s lively crossfire, he asks, “Does Miss S honor Brooklyn, as the American cradle of invention, heart, humor and moxie? No! No! To her it was a place she had to escape from as soon as possible so she could make a movie every blue moon and live on a Malibu bluff in a colossal compound with a stranger dressed as Mr. Wimple in her basement!”
Urie slips in and out of these characters as he tells his story — becoming them mid-sentence rather than reporting on what they said. Air-whipping, Brooklyn-defending Barry is passionate about everything. Don’t get him started on Alex’s appalling ignorance re: Babs or chapter and verse on her many lovers.
Barbra seems magically remote even as she lets incredulous Alex in. Her soft, throaty voice mixed with that Brooklyn accent is a cocktail that’s almost … European. Brolin’s manly swagger, which sweet Alex tries gamely to imitate, is a hoot, taking the concept of an errand run to a heroic John Wayne level.
The play’s a stylish froth that ends exactly as you know it must. When an empress dishes with you on a bench, inviting you into her most intimate thoughts, your bench expiry date gets pencilled in. You might as well decide from the get-go that you’re in it for the memories.
Which brings us to the subject of souvenirs. Tolins’ play itself is now available for purchase, a very clever piece of work. He has an ear for the things Barbra herself has said, like the description of her antique clothes shop as “kind of Louis the 15th or 16th, whatever,” that reveal where her heart is. The mall’s her trip down memory lane, not a museum-curated exhibition.
But a mall’s also a priceless opportunity for sport, and Tolins is a master. What do divas live for, but to be made fun of? he might be asking. To his credit, the whole thing is done with some affection, designed to be the roast of an unconventional adored one, attended by sympathetic friends.
- Interview with Michael Urie: Read it at Chicago On the Aisle
- Purchase Tolins’ play: Go to The Drama Bookshop
- Find Streisand’s “Passion for Design”: Go to Penguin.com
- Read an excerpt of Streisand’s book: Go to the U.K. Telegraph
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreInChicago.com