By Monica Hinman
How to deal with the trials and travails of life? Anxiety about the future, the disappointments of today and the scars from yesterday can be ameliorated with a Xanax or a bottle of wine, a little shopping or a gallon of ice cream. Or if you are a diva in need of comfort, you open a build a row of underground shops to house a collection of belongings.
Buyer and Cellar -presented by AT&T Performing Arts Center this weekend in a limited run - gives us a peek into the fantasy shopping world Barbra Streisand has created in the basement of a barn on her Malibu estate. That part is real and can be verified in her 2010 coffee-table book My Passion for Design in which Barbra (note the missing 'a' ) gives readers a glimpse into her "dream refuge". Yes, that's right she really built an old-fashioned strip mall, complete with a popcorn machine and a frozen-yogurt shop where she is the only customer.
While Buyer and Cellar is built around the world of Barbra Streisand, the star of this show is the charismatic, and unbelievably funny, Michael Urie. This critically acclaimed actor has his roots in the Dallas area -Plano to be exact - where he attended Collin County Community College (casually referred to as Quad C) before moving on to New York City's Juilliard School, followed by success on Broadway and television. This show may not have been written for him, but it showcases his unassuming charm and comedic timing to great effect and ends with lots of laughs.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins has taken the talents of Urie and his creative license and produced a hilarious show. Our tour-guide is Alex Moore, an un-employed actor recently fired from his Disney-gig as the Mayor of Toon-town (think David Sedaris as an unhappy elf in Santaland Diaries). Desperate for a job, he's hired as the only employee in this faux street of shops which include the Vintage Costume shop, a Gift Shoppe (playfully pronouncing the 'e') and the place where most of the interaction between Babs and her short-term employee takes place, "Bee's Doll Shop."
To introduce this heartfelt spoof, Urie plops down on stage as '"The Way We Were" plays, with the friendly disclaimer that the play melds reality and fantasy. He insists he will not be doing any Streisand imitations. This is quickly belied, as upon first encounter with her in the basement he demonstrates their conversations with an adept emulation of mannerisms: smoothing the carefully coifed hair, trademark sweep of the hand across the chest, and a spot-on impression of her raspy, yet nasally Brooklyn accent and the occasional grunt. It's well-spun parody, but lacking the cynicism of a charcuterie.
Urie skillfully changes voice and intonation as he moves between the character of the sweet, star-struck Alex and the 'tank in Tiananmen Square' as he describes Barbra in their first encounter. Urie also channels a cynical voice of reality as Alex's boyfriend Barry who injects a dose of reality into this "Utopia" Alex now clings to. Urie moves seamlessly between these voices with only a trip up or two speaking Barbra when he's meant to speak Alex, but perhaps this is part of the show's charm? It was never meant to be taken as a serious portrayal of Barbra -in fact, at it's core it's not about her. Buyer & Cellar is a look at celebrity, sure, but it's more importantly a look at dealing with the trials and tribulations of life, through both Barbra's eyes and the people who work in her basement. And it's storytelling at its most delightful.
This creative blend of the real and the imagined is filled with ubiquitous references to Los Angeles landmarks, gay and Jewish stereotypes and, of course, the movies and roles of Barbra Streisand, which are postulated as mirrors of her real life. We also see that even the wealthiest diva has the same problems as the rest of us; how to deal with the hurts of the past and the difficulties of day to day life, as well as figuring out what to do on Sunday. And like the character of Alex at the end of the play, the journey this diva will take you on is one you won't regret taking.
See Buyer & Cellar at the City Performance Hall, as part the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Off Broadway on Flora series. The show continues at 8 p.m. Thursday - Saturday, with a performance at 2 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are available at attpac.org.
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