Somewhere folks who make up summer reading lists and compile theatrical playlists get the notion that we still have the summer off from school to simply be amused before we return in September. The curmudgeon in me screams, “I haven’t spent an hour lying on the lawn, watching the clouds, and making up stories since I can’t remember when. Give me something I can chew on. Don’t waste my time.” Well, Mr. Curmudgeon, step aside. This time the Center Theatre Group has hit just the right note. “Buyer and Cellar” at the Taper is pure summer fun. Actually it is bright and fresh and could be consumed with satisfaction in any season, but now is your opportunity in Los Angeles. If you can handle a 100 minutes of uninterrupted, smart pleasure, grab a seat.
Here is the deal, and this part is true, Barbra has created a lushly landscaped and fastidiously designed Americana compound complete with mill and waterworks in the Malibu hills. With nothing left to chance she has fashioned her cellar into a mall inspired by one at that apotheosis of Americana (Winterthur in Wilmington, Del.), where the various collections that do not fit into her house are organized into shops. So emblematic of her obsessive need to control and need to be admired that in 2011 she wrote a large coffee table book, “My Passion for Design” complete with photographs by La Streisand herself (the hardcover version now available on Amazon discounted from $60 to $37.29, or you could get the $500 boxed version with DVD narrated by Streisand. Need I say more?). Check me out; those are the basic facts.
Here is the flight of fancy, based on the part that is true. Please keep that division straight because given all the stories of her tyrannical Hollywood persona, it is so easy to start believing that it is all true. Enter uber-engaging Alex More (Michael Urie), unemployed actor recently fired from his job at Disneyland where he was the Mayor of Toontown because he talked back at an 8-year-old who made a snide remark. His agent has sent him to the aforementioned estate for a job. It seems that having a private mall is no good if you lack a shopkeeper to serve you when you decide to visit your collections. He gets the part. Day after day Alex sits in the meticulously white, accented by something lighter than dove gray, cellar wearing the outfit undoubtedly selected by the afore-referenced Streisand, waiting for his illustrious customer. Every night he returns to his boyfriend, Barry, regaling him with tales of the estate and snarky Barry, an unemployed screenwriter, responds with Streisand barbs.
After days of solitude there is the tinkling sound of his famous customer opening the door to her make believe world. She enters the doll shop, picks up an antique doll, and makes it clear to Alex that his job is to pretend. They play bargain — Wisconsin bred Alex calls her style hondeling, a Yiddish term he is proud to have learned from his Jewish boyfriend — and she walks out in a huff. The evening goes on with a few more Yiddish words and a number of make-believes between Barbra and Alex, creating a false sense of intimacy. Barry shoots these down nightly, pointing out that Alex has never been allowed to see anything above the basement.
My inner curmudgeon also objects to one-man performances, but Michael Urie could make a convert of me. He effortlessly plays Alex, Barry, the estate’s tough-cookie manager, and James Brolin, Streisand’s husband. He conjures up the diva herself with merely suggestive gestures that say more than an out-and-out impersonation would achieve. In fact, it is hard to imagine anyone but Urie carrying off Jonathan Tolins’ delightful concoction, so engagingly does he inhabit the role. His performance feels so fresh it is hard to believe he has been doing it almost nightly for over a year, snagging a number of awards along the way.
No, there’s not a lot of story, and there are a lot references to movie trivia that went over my head but pleased the in-the-know opening night audience immensely. What there is entertains and gently makes the point that, as Alex says, “Relentless good taste combined with a total lack of financial restraint” is no substitute for intimacy, and fame probably ain’t what it is cracked up to be. “Buyer and Cellar” first and foremost shows that there can be a play of pure fun without insulting anyone’s intelligence. So there, Mr. Curmudgeon; I loved it.