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Review - Michael Urie Charms in 'Buyer and Cellar'

In a season loaded with name stars giving solo (and almost solo) performances, it was quite an achievement for Michael Urie to nab the most recent Drama Desk Award as the best of the lot. Of course, playwright Jonathan Tolins deserves a big hunk of credit for his funny and outrageous fantasy disguised as a commentary on the cloistered lives of celebrities, Buyer And Cellar.

After a successful world premiere run at the Rattlestick Theater, the play now serves as a delightful summer confection in a scheduled ten week run at the Barrow Street Theater.

"Before I tell you this story, we need to get a few things straight," says Urie, as himself, in a prologue that comically hammers home a please-don't-sue-us subtext.

"First, this is a work of fiction. You know that, right? I mean, the premise is preposterous... This is not journalism. There will be no excerpts on This American Life."

But it's fiction based the fact that My Passion for Design, a coffee table book by Barbra Streisand published in time for Christmas 2010, revealed to the world that the two-time Tony Award nominee (I hear she's had a bit of post-Broadway success as well.) keeps in the cellar of her Malibu home a 19th Century style street of quaint shops, inspired by a display she saw in a decorative arts museum in Delaware.

When the play proper begins, Urie plays out-of-work L.A. actor Alex More, whose experience as Disneyland's Mayor of Toontown helps land him a gig as the proprietor of Ms. Streisand's private shopping mall, where each shop displays the various bric-a-brac she's collected over the years, such as a collection of handmade dolls and the dress in which she sang "People" on Broadway. He's also responsible for keeping the frozen yogurt and popcorn machines running.

Under Stephen Brackett's direction, and according to the demands of the text, Urie's Alex doesn't give a full-out impersonation of Streisand when she finally visits for a bit of "shopping," but instead creates a subtle essence of a woman who likes to keep her private life private. Impressed by the way her new employee refuses to give in when she tries to bargain down the price of a doll whose history Alex has invented on the spot (The absurdity of the fact that she's "buying" her own property is not lost on the lad.), the lady of the house opens herself up to him in an awkward, but sincere show of friendship. But alas, such relationships were not built to last.

Aside from the former Miss Marmelstein, Urie's Alex also portrays a variety of characters such as his snooty supervisor, his smarmy boyfriend and yes, James Brolin, who comes down for a cup of yogurt. But Urie is at his most charming when Alex is Alex, a physically animated, vocally versatile bundle of energetic wit, sarcasm and insight.

At only 80 minutes, the play still drags a bit when sincerity gets too soupy. If the play is meant to convey anything significant about the sadder part of celebrity, Tolins doesn't dig deep enough to make it interesting. But as an entertainment, Buyer And Cellar is a charmer and Urie's charismatic performance lifts the evening into something memorable beyond the corners of the mind.

Photo of Michael Urie by Sandra Coudert.

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