A Big Gay Ice Cream Chat With Buyer & Cellar's Michael Urie, Jonathan Tolins, and Stephen Brackett
The Ugly Betty star and his playwright and director discuss the joys of hearing straight-male laughter at the "straightest solo show since Defending the Caveman."
Entertainment legend Barbra Streisand published the coffee-table book My Passion for Design in 2010, about the architecture and construction of her newest homes — one of which happens to have a private, high-end shopping mall in its basement. This singular fact inspired writer Jonathan Tolins to pen a short story. He submitted it to The New Yorker. They rejected it. And their loss became theater's gain.
At a friend's suggestion, Tolins turned the story into a one-man play. By the spring of 2013, that play, which he titled Buyer & Cellar, found its actor: Tolins' friend and Ugly Betty veteran Michael Urie; the play also found a home: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Since Buyer & Cellar would be filling a recently vacated programming slot, Rattlestick even already had a director lined up.
There was only one problem: "I didn't want to meet [the director]," said Tolins. "I thought, 'Oh please, I'm not going to inherit the guy who was there anyway.'" But Tolins quickly realized that director Stephen Brackett was perfect for the job, and six weeks later they were in rehearsals. Today, the play is a financial success in its run at the much larger Barrow Street Theatre.
TheaterMania sat down with all three members of the team at Manhattan's Big Gay Ice Cream Shop (because what could be more appropriate?). Tolins ordered coffee ice cream with sprinkles, Urie got the Bea Arthur, and we chatted about the magical way this show came together and how they'd feel about meeting Barbra in person.
What were your reactions when you first read the script?
Stephen Brackett: I think the first thing you notice in the script is how beautifully the idea translates to the page and how the joke evolves and becomes incredibly human. And it was so original.
Michael Urie: I loved it. I mean, I don't know what the experience of watching the play is like. But I know the experience of reading it is extremely fun. It's laugh-out-loud funny. But at the time, you know, it wasn't mine, so I was cautiously optimistic.
Jonathan Tolins: I left out that part. Originally, when I wrote it, I thought it was going to be Jesse Tyler Ferguson. The person who said I should write it as a one-man show was Jesse's manager. He said, "You should write this as a vehicle for Jesse" … [but Jesse already had a tentative plan to do Shakespeare in the Park]… Jesse, who was very gracious, said, "You know, I can't commit. If you can find a way to do it, go ahead." And my very next call was to Michael. You couldn't launch it as a play without a great actor who could have a wonderful rapport with an audience. Otherwise it'd be too risky; you couldn't do it.
By the way, there's a picture of Bea Arthur right there. I just noticed. She's overlooking us.
Michael Urie: This place is really gay.
Stephen Brackett: It's extremely gay.
How do you think the play has managed to be a long-term success?
Jonathan Tolins: Well, people love Barbra. [gestures to Urie] He's fantastic.
Michael Urie: And it's so beautifully written. And beautifully staged and designed. There's all this stuff that Stephen's created that's going on on the stage. Even though it's like ninety-five minutes of me talking, it still—
Jonathan Tolins: One hundred.
Michael Urie: It's really just fifty minutes of talking and the rest is laughter.
Jonathan Tolins: Stephen's team that he put together… We're all absolutely working with the same vision of what the show is and should be.
Stephen Brackett: There's something about how this happened so quickly that so much of it was impulsive, you really sort of had to go with your first big instincts and run with it. And I think it was everybody's commitment to make it as great as possible… We were able to find the show in front of an audience. And it was a conversation with the audience, so that was great.
Michael Urie: The conversation aspect of it has kept it fresh for me. In some shows I don't like knowing who's in the audience, but with this show it's great because I can think about them as I'm telling the story. It makes it special to be able to tee things up for someone in the way that you would tell some great story that happened to you and you would color it for your audience. It's always fun to see who's out there when I go out each night.
Jonathan Tolins: And very cool people have been out there.
Jonathan Tolins: Sarah Jessica Parker, Frank Langella—
Stephen Brackett: Sarah Jessica brought her son, who's like eleven, who is brilliant. I think he's probably my favorite person who's come. Jessica Lange, Barry Manilow. James Franco wrote about it online after he saw it. My mom.
Your mom's not your favorite person who's come?
Jonathan Tolins: No, Sarah Jessica Parker's son is still my favorite person who's come to see the show.
Why do you think the show has such a broad audience?
Jonathan Tolins: Well, I imagine part of it is because so many people know a lot about Barbra. But I think it's just a fun story and it's a good story and I think people have a really good time.
Stephen Brackett: The word has gotten out that you don't have to be a Barbra fanatic to enjoy the show too, and I think that's really helped us.
Michael Urie: People come in knowing the premise, but the twists and turns are so clever. I can feel audiences assume it's going to go in one direction and then it goes in a different direction. I think that — for the people who are like, "OK, what am I watching? What did my wife drag me to?" — what makes it [for them] is the surprise.
Stephen Brackett: Always, the husbands are laughing as much as the wives.
Michael Urie: Hearing that straight-man laughter is spectacular.
Stephen Brackett: And we hear it a lot.
Jonathan Tolins: We have the straightest solo show since Defending the Caveman.
Do you think the story of the play's main character is sort of a parallel to the play itself?
Jonathan Tolins: Yeah, I mean I kind of feel like, like [Michael's character] Alex, I now feel oddly connected to Barbra Streisand. Like, my life and my career are sort of weirdly linked to her. Which is bizarre. It's only because she built a mall in her basement that any of this happened.
Stephen Brackett: It's been fun to consider her in this process. Sometimes I ask myself the question, what would Barbra do? Like, if she was directing this, how would she stage the end of this scene?
Michael Urie: I like to learn what she was like as an actor and to sort of take on her rhythms. I think she's a terrific actor, and her instincts are so fun and surprising and interesting. So I try to use them to embody her mindset to play her, which is fun.
Would you want to meet her one day?
Jonathan Tolins: I have met her. Once. Twenty years ago. It's in the play. She offered me a piece of her Kit Kat bar, and I didn't take it. I still regret it. I'm making up for it now.
Stephen Brackett: I wonder what she'd ask.
Jonathan Tolins: "Are you having fun being me? 'Cause I'm not."
Michael Urie: "I hear you do me. Let's see it."
...I hope she wouldn't do that.