I went into Buyer & Cellar expecting light comedy (yep) and not much else (nope). Don't get me wrong—I believe fervently in the value of light comedy. My dissertation was on the value of comedy, which was one reason I wanted to see this show. Another was the cast—Michael Urie, whom I have loved since the first season of Ugly Betty. The main reason, though, was that Buyer & Cellar is a fantasy about a young gay man who serves as the sole retail worker in the underground mall in Malibu that houses Barbra Streisand's personal collection of stuff. Some of the other subjects of my dissertation were young people, queer people, and collectors—not to mention divas, Los Angeles, and musicals; this show was made for me.
Urie, as would-be actor Alex More, is both fantastic and fabulous, which are complementary (and complimentary) qualities in an actor. He has a rapid-fire energy to his monologue and purpose to his movement that kept the show active and gripping despite a narrative that features long stretches of Alex sitting in Barbra's basement alone, bored. When he isn't alone, when he relives interactions with his boyfriend, with Barbra, with various other characters, his dialogue with himself changes tempo to match the situation. He speeds up to debate with his queeny would-be-screenwriter boyfriend, Barry; slows down for duels with Sharon, the manager of Barbra's vast compound; and grinds nearly to a halt for the heart of the play, Alex's encounters with the lady herself. The pauses that mark the pas de deux between Alex and Barbra never break the show's momentum, instead ratcheting up the comic anticipation that marks most of Buyer & Cellar.
For Buyer & Cellar is filled with jokes that I got, that most of the audience got, just a split second before the punchline. Quotations from lyrics, references to earlier moments in the show, commentary on gayness, Jewishness, Los Angeles-ness, popular culture, all are predictable, but in the best way possible. Each punchline feels like the ideal next step, rather than a disappointing inevitability, and makes us feel smart for getting the joke. Jonathan Tolins' script plays to his audience—which on Friday night in the West Village was the expected mix of gay men, middle-aged Jews, and other theater folk—and its familiarity not only appeals to our egos, but also primes us to be quite startled when he wrenches the play in an unexpected direction. The comedy is comforting, and the breaches in it shake that comfort just enough to allow us to see through the gap to the pain, anger, and philosophy that underpin Buyer & Cellar, as they do most comedy.
Barbra's and Alex's emotions give Buyer & Cellar weight beyond what one might expect in a gay Streisand fantasy, but they rarely weigh the play down. At 95 minutes without intermission, it skips along quite lightly, though the denouement drags just a hair. Pretty good pacing for a play inspired by a supremely static coffee table book, My Passion for Design, written and photographed by Streisand in 2010. Alex carries a post-it-festooned copy of the book onstage at the opening of the play, reading from it and showing us photos of some of Streisand's more outlandish outbuildings; the book is a catalogue of Barbra's personal collections of furniture, clothing, knick-knacks, and grounds. Out of Streisand's glossy paean to her own material wealth, Tolins draws not only the obvious critique of her self-aggrandizing lifestyle—a critique he makes with acid wit through the exquisitely campy Barry—but also an explanation or two of what might underlie that lifestyle (both figuratively and literally) and what might result from it when it brushes up against the lives of ordinary people.
It is only fair to admit that there were moments when the show was less than perfect. There were times, towards the end, when it slowed down too much. There were occasions when Urie relied too much on his eyes and eyebrows for characterization or emphasis. But these imperfections, these moments when the show stretched a bit too much in timing or in facial expression, highlighted the consistent quality of the rest of the evening. If you will pardon the mildest of puns, everything that Buyer & Cellar was selling, I bought, and would buy again. Like Barbra, even when we already own what we are there to examine, we find it more satisfying in the hands of a capable seller.