Three years ago, Barbra Streisand achieved a personal first: she published a book. “My Passion for Design,” with text and photos by its legendary author, was a lavish coffee table tome ($60 for the standard version; $500 for the signed-and-numbered deluxe edition) that showcased Streisand’s Malibu dream house.
Voyeurs into Barbra’s usually shielded personal life glommed on to one particular detail that went beyond what even they were expecting, one that left them -- yeah -- verklempt. Streisand, it turned out, had built a street of shops in the basement of a barn on her estate. According to her own photos, this subterranean mall, modeled on a decorative arts museum in Delaware, boasts a doll shop, an antique clothes boutique, a gift “shoppe” and even a frozen yogurt machine ... all under the tasteful canopy of an off-white ceiling. The items “for sale” are already Barbra’s possessions. The only “customer” likely to shop the mall is Babs herself.
Playwright Jonathan Tolins (“The Twilight of the Golds”) would call her the buyer in the cellar.
Thanks to Streisand’s book, the existence of the underground street is verifiable fact, explains unemployed L.A. actor Alex More (Michael Urie, of TV’s “Ugly Betty”) at the outset of “Buyer & Cellar,” the stellar one-man comedy by Tolins which has just transferred to the Barrow Street Theatre after a spring run at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. What is entirely fiction is the wacky “I became BFFs with a megastar” story that comes next, as played out over 90 minutes by the snarky, energetic and charismatic Urie: “This is a work of fiction. You know that, right?” Urie says, with a wink-wink sideways glance to his rapt West Village audience
And what inviting fiction it is. When we meet Alex, he’s just been fired (don’t ask) from his job in Disney’s Toontown. He’s shacking up with boyfriend Barry, an underemployed screenwriter, when a pal lines him up with a job interview. Turns out, if Babs is going to keep a mall in her cellar, she needs an employee to manage it. Thanks to his retail experience at a Banana Republic, Alex lands the gig, which, much like the Disney job, also requires him to wear a costume.
Into the dungeon Alex descends, unsure if he’ll ever even meet his new benefactor, but it’s not long before the homeowner pays a visit (a helpful device has Streisand’s entrances announced by wind chimes). Urie employs facial tics and a spot-on Brooklyn accent to evoke Streisand, who in this fantasy has come to the basement -- that is, her own basement -- to purchase a doll ... and she also wants to haggle over the price (“It was little me against the tank in Tiananmen Square,” Alex explains of the standoff). Alex earns her respect by refusing to budge during negotiations. A friendship ensues, though we’re never quite clear if this relationship will make it out of the basement.
That’s the mystery of “Buyer & Cellar,” which is something of a treatise on the ways we accrue both material possessions and other human beings to fill the holes in our hearts. Treating people as possessions, Tolins seems to tsk-tsk, isn’t going to work out for either of the parties in a dialogue in the long run. By story’s end, Alex has come to terms with the nature of his new relationship, and he’s learned a lesson about perfectionism he incorporates into his own life, with haste.
Andrew Boyce’s spare set keeps the focus on the cardigan-clad Urie, whose performance is lively and vibrant (Urie earned the 2013 Drama Desk award for outstanding solo performance for this role). Video against the backdrop locates the action, be it Barry’s apartment or “Bee’s Doll Shop” in Babs’ basement.
“My Passion for Design” was a boon to both Streisand fans and foes (gauging by the reviews currently on Amazon, the lovers seem to outnumber the haters roughly 10-to-1). There’s room for either in this theater. I left “Buyer & Cellar” thinking it was a touch unfair to Ms. Streisand, who, according to the playwright, has not seen the show. Something tells me, though, she’d find it just as outrageously inventive and downright gut-busting as everyone else does. There would probably be just a few things she wants to change.
“Buyer & Cellar,” through Sept. 1 at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St. Tickets: $75, available by calling 212-868-4444 or visiting smarttix.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn