In a theatrical season full of boldfaced names taking center stage — Ann Richards, Mike McAlary, Sue Mengers, the Virgin Mary — perhaps it's not altogether surprising to find ourselves in the presence of the one and only Barbra. What is admittedly a bit more shocking is that La Streisand is the secondary, and arguably, less interesting character in Jonathan Tolins' hilarious new piece, Buyer & Cellar, now at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater under Stephen Brackett's sure-handed direction.
Instead, recently unemployed actor Alex More — a person we're assured early on is a complete work of fiction — steals the show and our hearts. Moreover, it's a rather odd sort of larceny since Alex and Barbra, as well as all of the 90-minute play's minor characters (fellow employee Sharon, Alex's sarcastic boyfriend, Barry, and Streisand's husband, James Brolin) are played with consummate skill by the consistently marvelous, deliciously endearing Michael Urie.
Recently fired from his gig in Disneyland's Toontown, Alex has been hired to man the shopping mall that Streisand has built underneath her palatial Malibu spread, and which Barbra periodically visits to admire, fondle, and even "buy" the dolls, clothes, and other memorabilia she actually already owns. Unlike many of his gay brethren, Alex doesn't consider himself a "Barbra Queen" (or even a "Judy Queen") and is originally more grateful for the steady paycheck than the chance to be in the presence of the legendary actress and her many belongings (none of which we actually see — the mall is evoked only by Andrew Boyce's white bench and some wall projections by Alex Koch).
But the pair's relationship slowly evolves, so much so that Alex even becomes Barbra's acting coach for a planned film version of Gypsy. They also become secret-sharing confidantes, although — and here's where the play falters — everything Barbra reveals to Alex is the same sad-childhood stories she's told before: the "it's lonely at the top" whining of every superstar, and the oft-heard complaints about how people misperceive her drive for perfectionism. Still, the question lingers: Have the Jewish megastar from Brooklyn and the everygoy from Wisconsin really become true friends?
Fortunately, what saves the work from devolving into, you should pardon the word, schmaltz, is Tolins' wicked sense of humor. True, it helps to be a Barbra devotee to get some of the references, such as a quip about The Prince of Tides or Robert Redford in The Way We Were. And gay men may be laughing just a bit louder than others when Alex talks about Barbra dressing like Dorothy in The Golden Girls. Or his explanation of how the star is as ungrateful as the daughter in Mildred Pierce. Or when he throws off a line about how Judy Garland's weight fluctuated during the making of Summer Stock. But even the less-initiated are likely to burst out in guffaws just by virtue of Urie's sardonic delivery.
Still, the versatile actor never overplays any of the characters; it's a far subtler performance than his deliberately over-the-top work as Marc St. James on TV's Ugly Betty. Most importantly, he connects deeply with Alex, making us care about this sweet, slightly lost young man searching for his place in the world. And ultimately, he learns a valuable lesson or two about life from Malibu Barbra, even if she may not be a living doll.