PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Buyer & Cellar — Hire Down Below
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the Off-Broadway opening of Buyer & Cellar. Michael Urie, Holland Taylor, Jane Lynch and Vanessa Williams were there — so was Playbill.
Well, now I guess it's official: First, there was that Comedy of Errors mix-up of identical twins up in Central Park with Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Hamish Linklater. Then, there was a fuddy-duddy funfest about admitting a female scientist into the last unchecked bastion of male superiority, The Explorer's Club, an 1879 London gentlemen's club reimagined in Manhattan Theatre Club's City Center space. Now, Buyer & Cellar has shifted its basement shopping mall for Barbra Streisand to play with and pretend to buy stuff she already owns farther downtown — from its cramped, sold-out Rattlestick stand to the more spacious Barrow Street Theatre.
Given all the above, I think we can safely say we're steeped in the season of silly. The mischievous sprite in charge of Barbra's booty is an out-of-work gay actor named Alex More, played by an industriously overworked gay actor named Michael Urie, who raked in several 2012-2013 prizes (including Actors' Equity's Clarence Derwent Award) for his dime-spinning dizziness zipping in and out of characters.
Streisand is formidably in that number, swapping bon mots with the help, haggling over prices, starving off quiet desperation ("Nobody pops by"), breaking Kit-Kats together — in general, just getting to know him. Gradually, the worm turns, and, in short order, he's giving career advice ("Do Gypsy!") and nurturing her Mama Rose.
There are other characters parading through this affable antic. The Great Lady's excessively straight-arrow hubby, actor James Brolin, strays in once to fetch some frozen yogurt. Then, there's Streisand's tough-cookie manager, Sharon, who hires the personnel, thus keeping the goddess one degree of separation from employees. After hours, there's Alex's cynical scriptwriting boyfriend, Barry. No lover of Babs, he functions like a bad-cop reality check to Alex's ever-adoring slave.
Speaking of reality checks, this is probably the place to point out that all of the above is fiction — a fantastic fabrication — inspired lunacy that took hold of playwright Jonathan Tolins when he read "My Passion for Design," La Streisand's coffee-table book documenting the treasures she has acquired in life and found a home for underneath her Malibu dream house. Leaving nothing to chance, she did the text and the principal photography herself. ("How did she get her?" gasps the amazed Alex.)
It's a merry little charade, with endless rifts and rapid-fire one-liners, all of which add up to a full meal. Afterward, the laugh-bloated first-nighters traveled just a few curlicue streets to Perilla for a gridlocked opening night party that already had a glow on. Passed appetizers and drinks-on-the-house were the order of the night. The specialty drink was named after a French favorite in Barbra's dollhouse — The Fifi, which consisted of vodka, syrup, grapefruit juice and sparkling wine.
Urie's greased-lightning performance is much like a conductor orchestrating a pretty constant concert of hysterical laughter, and his muted smile masks laughs inside.
"There are a few moments that really tickle me from time to time," he admitted. "Sometimes, I just get a kick out of how funny the audience find moments like 'Mimi Rogers, perfectly cast as her sister in 'The Mirror Has Two Faces' — what?' That just tickles me. There are points where I let myself get tickled by them. The audience is so different from night to night. I realized this early on — maybe I shouldn't tell you this — but I could tell that they love it when I laugh, so I let myself do it occasionally."
Lauren Bacall won her only Oscar nomination playing Streisand's mother in that film, and the scene where she tells Babs that she was really the pretty one was described as being "delivered with the determined sincerity of a hostage video."
Urie is totally in the moment all 90 minutes — you never know where he's going to leap or riff. "They say that actors, when they're in the moment and something changes, forget their lines. Not me. I think of my lines all the time. My God, it's a story, and I like to remember what happened. It's totally different every night."
One of his opening-night guests, Holland Taylor, mud-wrestled him for the year's best solo performance awards. He got the Drama Desk Award, and she got the Outer Critics Circle Award.
"She and I have become friends on e-mail," he said. "I'm from Texas, and I took my parents to her show, Ann. My mom always said my dad's mom, whom I didn't know very well, was a lot like Ann Richards. So, for her to come to my show tonight was incredible. It was just so wonderful to meet her. I really love her. There are a lot of famous people here tonight. I heard Tyne Daly was here."
"I saw the movie a long time ago. Before that, it was a 10-minute sketch for a fund-raiser in which Andre's mother neither spoke nor moved — as I understand it. I haven't seen it, but it's not important for me to investigate the past lives of things."
This engagement was a sentimental journey for her. "I got my Equity card at the Bucks County Playhouse in 1963 in a Jean Kerr play called Jenny Kissed Me with my dad, my mother, my sister and my brother. To play there 50 years later was full of ghosts. I hope we get the use of that house to try stuff out. My dad tried out a play there called The Advocate the summer before. In 1963, they were trying out a show called Nobody Loves Me. Ever hear of it? Second hint: Mike Nichols directed it. Third hint: It starred Robert Redford." Ah! Barefoot in the Park. "They saw it out of town, and they threw out the entire first act. 'The play doesn't start with them in Italy. The play starts when they arrive at the apartment.' That sort of stuff is theatre to me."
Playwright Tolins spent opening-night at the back of the house, undoubtedly blissed out by the ecstatic reception. "It's wonderful when you stumble onto something that people seem to like so much," he admitted. "I have to say, every night we get a response like this. The audience just really connects with Michael and gets invested in the story and starts to believe this crazy story is true. Every night they go on this journey of watching these two people have a relationship and get to know each other. I love sneaking in the theatre and watching it because I feel extremely proud.
"I worked on it off and on for a year. I was working on other things [like Urie's short-lived TV series, 'Partners'], but then, at the end, the last third came very quickly, and I finished it last summer. It takes a lot of work to make it seem spontaneous."
Yes, he had to kill his darlings. "There was a lot of cutting in the rehearsal period. The script was ten pages longer than it is now. Now it is down to Page 59, single-spaced — but I write it like a play so each character gets a new character setting."
"My Passion for Design" sent his imagination soaring. "I said to someone, 'How'd you like to be the guy who works down there?' Then, it just started coming very vividly in my head, thinking about a guy stuck in that job and Barbra coming down to haggle over the items, which is something she is famous for doing in antique stores.
"I've always loved assistant characters. I've written them before — in Secrets in the Trade and If Memory Serves. I like writing about very unequal relationships where one person seems to have all the power and yet that character cares very much what that powerless person thinks of them and how they negotiate that space."
The third major ingredient of Buyer & Cellar is its director, Stephen Brackett, and you have to ask how he manipulated such a nuanced performance from his star. He opted for dirt-kicking modesty: "Listen, when you're working with Michael and that script, it's like 'Let me not screw this up.' That was my M.O. the entire time.
"I just think the world of Michael. A great thing about the transfer is, with time, he has been able to get even deeper with the material. I was blown away by him. I just find his performance so rich and fulfilling. The beautiful thing about working with him is that it's a collaboration from Day One. We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to make this something that was tailored to Michael and showcased him, so we just started off with a conversation. We would bounce ideas off each other. The result of what you see is really a conversation between Michael and me.
"We said from the very beginning that we wanted this show to feel like your best friend telling you the most amazing story. Something we worked on was bringing that familiarity to the audience, and that's one of the ways it manifests itself is the way he shares the joke with us. And he knows how to do it. I've learned from him how to sell a joke, how to tell an audience where a joke lands. He's brilliant at that."
Considering the intimate affection that greeted Urie's opening, it might well have been a cluster of BFFs. The evening was far starrier than most Off-Broadway liftoffs. Numbering among the push-over converts were Nick Jonas, whom a Broadway-debuting Urie tried to trip on the corporate ladder in How To Succeed; Roma Torre; Oscar-nominated Gabourney Sibide; "Queer as Folk" folks Michelle Clunie and Randy Harrison (the latter just co-starred with Urie in a caper comedy called "Such Good People" in the time it took Buyer & Cellar to switch theatres); Noah Robbins, from Tolins' Secrets of the Trade; Peter and the Starcatcher's adapter (Rick Elice) and co-director (Roger Rees); and, author of "Blown Sideways Through Life," Claudia Shear.
Two of Urie's "Ugly Betty" co-stars, Vanessa Williams and Mark Indelicato, showed, and he spent a lot of party time with them in appreciation. He has credited Williams with helping him go from a bit part in the pilot to series regular all four seasons of the show. For Williams, who struck up instant chemistry with him, that was a no-brainer. "He's the one I knew would be incredible — we couldn't let him go," said Williams. "This is my second time seeing it. I saw him at the Rattlestick. I'm so excited that it's actually moving to the bigger theatre. He's so good and does different stuff. Angels in America and The Temperamentals were completely serious."
Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was also well-represented by two Tony nominees (Shalita Grant and Kristine Nielsen), a Tony winner who will take over Sigourney Weaver's Masha on July 31 (Julie White) and producer Pat Flicher Addiss, who also produced Buyer & Cellar with Darren Bagert, Dan Shaheen, Ted Snowden, Daryl Roth, et al. She got in a little plug for it June 26 when she and Margo Lion spoke to foreign correspondents at the UN about Broadway theatre. No doubt she let slip that her other Broadway show, A Christmas Story, will be coming to Madison Square Garden this Christmas. Will that be too much tinsel?
Brent Barrett, back from his Peter Pan tour, said he's hitting the road again — to the Sacramento Music Circus where he'll do Sugar with Jason Graae, Alix Korey and Lenny Wolpe. And Kate Baldwin is back from Chicago where she won raves for Big Fish, which starts rehearsing Aug. 12 for an Oct. 6 opening at the Neil Simon. "I play the wife of Norbert Leo Butz and the mother of Bobby Steggert — for the second time this year. He was my son last fall in Giant at The Public. I'm about three or four years older than he is." Her own offspring is two — "the wonderful twos," she said.
Jane Lynch spent her night off from her Broadway debut in Annie, supporting Urie. "I'm having the time of my life," she confessed, uncoached. "I'm enjoying myself every day. I look forward to going in there every day and getting out on stage. I will never let 20 years go by without being on stage ever again. Miss Hannigan is a great part for me. It's a great musical, and I have a terrific cast." Favorite moment? What else? "I love doing 'Easy Street.' When that song pops up, it's so exciting for me."
In contrast to the hard-hearted Miss Hannigan, the actress gives her full-hearted support to The Trevor Project, which prevents suicides among LGBTQ youth. She hosted its gala for six years in L.A. and recently did the same for the NYC branch.
What's next on the docket for Richard Kind, who was in Tony contention earlier this month for his against-type tour de force as a mobster-like movie mogul in The Big Knife? "I'm going to L.A. to look for a money job," he announced bluntly. "Y'know, my kids are eating mashed potatoes, saying, 'Isn't Daddy's prestige delicious?'"
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