Michael Urie could not have imagined a role like Alex More. Or a show like Buyer and Cellar.
“I would describe it,” Urie says, “as a completely fictional tale about a completely fake person who works in the absolutely real basement mall at Barbra Streisand’s house.”
Photography by Todd Franson
Yes, absolutely real: In her 2010 book My Passion for Design, Streisand makes passing reference to having a personal mall in her Malibu mansion. From that little detail playwright Jonathan Tolins hit the ground running, digging deeply into his imagination to create an improbable — and improbably funny — one-man show about an unemployed actor who takes a job as Streisand’s subterranean shop boy. Played by Urie, the fictitious Alex More tends to the tchotchkes while pining for more visits from Streisand, his only customer.
Urie is best known from ABC’s Ugly Betty, where he played Vanessa Williams’s flamboyant, conniving assistant. But in the Off-Broadway Buyer and Cellar, the 33-year-old is not just playing another diva’s assistant, he actually portrays the diva in a few scenes, including one hilarious moment in which Alex helps Streisand rehearse lines for the star’s true-to-life dream role: Mama Rose in a proposed new film version of Gypsy.
“I’ve learned more about audiences doing this play than anything else — because they’re my co-star; they’re the other actor,” Urie says, who in recent years has appeared on Broadway in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Off Broadway in The Temperamentals, and on CBS’s short-lived sitcom, Partners. And to play the part to satisfaction requires some imagination on each audience member’s part. “You’re not getting a full Barbra,” explains Urie, who doesn’t don drag for his empathetic portrayal. “You’re not getting a full mall. You have to come up with a lot of it yourself.”
Urie has been playing Alex, Streisand and a handful of other characters in Buyer and Cellar for over a year now, since originating the role in a production Off Broadway for the small Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. In a few weeks, Urie will appear at Harman Hall in a short run of the show presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company. The company’s director, Michael Kahn, was one of Urie’s teachers at Juilliard a decade ago. In fact, Kahn helped trigger the current national tour of Buyer and Cellar, which makes additional stops in Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There may be more to come, though Urie deflects a question about future plans by channeling Streisand: “There’s talk, but nothing I can tawk about. It’s all just tawk.”
In the meantime, the New York-based Texas native welcomes a return to the D.C. stage, after starring as Mercutio in a 2005 production of Romeo and Juliet at the Folger Theatre.
“I was really impressed with the audiences here,” he says during a recent interview in a reception room in the Harman Center for the Arts. “They’re very smart. I think people will really like this play here. It’s very clever. And, you know, D.C. has its egos, and its big personalities. So I just think Washingtonians will relate to the play.”
METRO WEEKLY: How did you come to Buyer and Cellar?
MICHAEL URIE: Jon [Tolins] and I both ended up on a sitcom together [Partners], that he was a writer on and I was in. We were both transplanted to the West Coast and became good friends doing that. And that’s when he passed me the script. Which was originally written for another actor named Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Jesse loved it but couldn’t commit to it, because of his Modern Family schedule, and eventually gave Jon his blessing to attach me to it instead. That stupid fool. [Laughs.]
MW: Did that inform how you approached the role at all, that it was originally written for Ferguson?
URIE: No. I can’t even imagine how Jesse would do it. I mean, it’s so different. You have to bring so much of yourself to this show. Because the play is essentially about a guy telling you a story, it really only I think works if you use your own storytelling skills to tell that guy’s story.
MW: How did you prepare for portraying Barbra Streisand?
URIE: I watched all the movies and all the interviews and, of course, I listened to a lot of the albums, especially the concert albums where she talks as herself. It’s a recent Barbra, a modern Barbra that we needed. The play basically takes place in 2010, when the book came out. It’s not young Barbra, it’s now Barbra. It’s late-60s Barbra. It’s Roz Focker. That movie, Meet The Fockers, which she’s in with Dustin Hoffman, that was the most helpful to me. But I then also added whimsical elements from her early work like The Owl and the Pussycat and Funny Girl and What’s Up, Doc? — I needed that whimsical Barbra. The sort-of serious, smart Barbra, the Prince of Tides Barbra, the interview Barbra, that wasn’t as helpful. Because she’s very serious in interviews for the most part. But she’s silly in movies, and I needed a silly Barbra to find my Barbra for the show. So the old movies and the new movies were the most helpful.
MW: Was there ever any talk of doing it in actual drag?
URIE: No, that was never part of it. Jon never wanted it to be a drag interpretation. We don’t call it an impression, or an impersonation. What I think is wonderful about that conceit is that the audience really has to bring their own experience of her. Or, if they don’t have much of an experience of her, they can create one as the play goes on, so that they fill in who it is. I have this fairly neutral costume, and this wonderfully neutral set, and there are some things suggested my projection. And I describe a lot of things. But it’s not literal. What you see when you watch the play isn’t literal at all. So your imagination is constantly working. And I think that is part of why people like the play so much, because they’re invested. They’re actually using their imagination. With movies, nothing is left to the imagination any more. And a lot of theater, you can show everything on a stage these days. You know, put a car on stage, shoot people on stage. You can do a lot of different things, and an audience doesn’t have to use their imagination as much. But in this, you’re not getting a full Barbra. You’re not getting a full mall. You have to come up with a lot of it yourself.
MW: But your great mannerisms as Streisand really aid in the portrayal.
URIE: Yeah, her nails. You know who taught me her nails? John Epperson, Lypsinka. He was the first person I asked to come see it. Mostly because I wanted his blessing. But I also wanted tips. I’d never played a woman before. And I didn’t want to go too far. And also I knew John, he’s got a real knack for mimicry, but he’s not really a drag queen. What he does is so specific with his lip-synching character that I thought he’d be able to help me. And he did. He’s the one who gave me the nails mannerisms. Sometimes people tell me they think that I have long nails after they see the show because I’m pretending to play with them. And you just gesture differently when you have long nails. You can’t do certain things when they’re long. And then with the hair — I do a hair thing as Barbra in the play that she doesn’t actually do, but I think if she had my hair, it’s what she would do.
MW: Did you consider yourself a fan of Streisand before? Do you now?