Getting to know Barbra Streisand

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday August 26, 2014
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Has anyone ever seen the kind of home-movie snippets of Barbra Streisand that turn up on TV bios, like those of Lucy and Desi clowning around the pool, or Bogie and Bacall mugging as steaks grill on the barbecue? There are virtually no at-ease recordings of Streisand, everything instead coming through a scripted performance, a meticulously controlled interview, or a concert appearance that has even casual banter programmed into a teleprompter. It's this do-not-enter life into which Buyer & Cellar dares to trespass on tiptoe.

This incursion may be totally made up, as actor Michael Urie tells the audience before becoming a character who briefly pushes through Streisand's enameled defenses, but even with this disclaimer it's easy to buy into this slice of Streisand as created by playwright Jonathan Tolins �" and then filtered through Urie's dazzling performances as all the characters. This is a Streisand painted in small, guarded strokes, but the humor generated by Urie's running commentary as an out-of-work actor in her employ, as well as through the love-hate Barbra fanaticism of the actor's boyfriend, can be enormous.

There wasn't much advance buzz as Buyer & Cellar arrived off-Broadway in 2013. Urie, who had played a flamboyantly noticeable character in TV's Ugly Betty, added a modicum of marketability, but attention was soon being paid big-time by audiences and media, and that little show generated a national tour now at the Curran Theatre.

You don't have to know much about Streisand to enjoy this show, and anything short of downright loathing can be accommodated. While a joke about a "mink hat suitable for tugboat travel" will resonate in a smaller circle, Tolins has provided context for much of the story he has created. Ironically, all the attention generated by Buyer & Cellar was inspired by one of the most innocuous efforts in the Streisand canon.

My Passion for Design is a 2010 coffee-table book by Streisand detailing her latest home renovations project. Nestled deep in the book is a reference to Winterthur, a decorative arts museum in Delaware that gave Streisand the idea to create a small street of shops in the basement to house a vast array of collectibles. There are no actual customers, or even visitors, except for an occasional appearance by Streisand and an even rarer visit by a privileged guest. But still the shops need a keeper, and that's how Alex, Urie's character, finds himself in Streisand's employ.

The tinkling of a little bell above the door announces each Streisand visit, and Alex is savvy enough to know how to gradually disarm Streisand without a usual fan's solicitous demeanor. Throughout their increasingly personal conversations, Alex is quick with asides to the audience that puncture any sanctimoniousness. And what Alex doesn't puncture, boyfriend Barry does as Alex reports back after each Streisand encounter. Barry even becomes jealous of Barbra as Alex expresses increasing sympathy for the emotional burdens she carries along with her obscene abundance.

Urie is just wonderful as he shuttles among the characters, carrying on quick-fire conversations between Alex and Barbra, as well as with his boyfriend, Barbra's sour assistant, and a vaguely clueless James Brolin. As Urie tells us at the start, he's not going to do a straight-on Streisand impersonation; rather, he indicates her manner through body language and a cautiously weary voice. Stephen Brackett's staging keeps the comedy sharp as a simple set evolves into various settings, while also letting Streisand have a few genuine moments of fragility.

As we were leaving the theater, my theater companion and I wondered if Streisand might actually enjoy Buyer & Cellar. Our conclusion: No. If she had the kind of self-awareness that would let her laugh at her foibles, she wouldn't be the Barbra who makes Buyer & Cellar such a maniacally funny show.


Buyer & Cellar will run through Aug. 31 at the Curran Theatre. Tickets are $60-$100. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to