Buyer & Cellar, which is currently in a short but bound-to-be-wildly-succesful run at Sidney Harman Hall is that rare theatre performance bird: a play performed by one man, on a simple stage with nothing but a chair, a table and a coffee table book to keep him company that succeeds in being wildly entertaining both visually and narratively, and succeeds in doing that in a way so effortless it could be deemed a minor miracle.
Sure, there is a gimmick, but it is an ingenious one. At the very start of it all, Michael Urie, who IS that one man we’re about to spend time on stage informs you as much. Inspired by a real, honest-to-God-this-exists book written by Barbra Streisend that totally exists (My Passion for Design, which I did absolutely order right after seeing this show) and a real, honest-to-God-this-exists-because-it-is-talked-about-in-that-book mall (YES, A MALL) of old timey shops she built in her basement in order to keep her things (closets may be good enough for some of us, but not for Barbra, naturally), playwright Jonathan Tolins set up this premise (and this is where any real, honest-to-God aspect of it all ends and all the fun begins):
WHAT IF… those shops in that mall in Barbra’s basement needed someone to work in them? And what is that person somehow slowly, got to spend more time with Barbra than most people did? And what is that person was a hilarious, under-employed gay actor who could really spin this tale in ways that would be funny and sad and felt, oh well, ALMOST real? Wouldn’t that be amazing?
And it is. Urie plays Alex Moore, that hilarious, under-employed gay actor telling us the story in question, but he also plays EVERYONE ELSE (even if early on, he informs us, he doesn’t “DO” impressions): the curmudgeony, seen-it-all house manager Sharon (“imagine Cloris Leachman, just as Phylis gets canceled”), his own star struck boyfriend Barry (also from Brooklyn, like the lady of the house), Jim (James Brolin, natch), and yes, even HER. For the duration of the play’s trim 90 minutes, he switches back and forth with the agile skill of a natural born comedian, his timing flawless, his mannerisms never quite crossing the line into a parody of themselves, his voice still his at all times, and yet you see every single one of these people clearly, as if the play had a stage full of people.
What makes it more than just a funny night out is that what could have ended up being a one joke show (mainly involving Barbra’s nails) somehow, along the way, takes a turn for the poignant. Between laughs, in that basement filled with frozen yoghurt machines, antique dolls and costumes from yes, Funny Girl and more, both Alex and Barbra start revealing their true blue, blue selves and something almost touching develops. The fact that this “realness” is taking place in this VERY surreal situation only amplifies the effect, and as Alex and Barbra dance their way through a very real rehearsal for a very fake movie adaptation of a play they’ve both loved forever – the viewers will inevitably find themselves rooting for them to find something they can both hang on to for really real.
What happens next is both expected, heartbreaking despite it all, and yes, STILL HILARIOUS. 90 minutes in, as Urie returns to his own self, you can’t help but wonder if some of those tears in your eyes were the first ever tears of both laughter and sadness you cried? And that, my friends, is why we go to theatre. In hopes that moments like this are still possible.