Michael Urie and Jonathan Tolins rummage around in Streisand’s cellar
Michael Urie and Jonathan Tolins are goofing around in the empty halls of the Mark Taper Forum. Like two puppies just released from their crates, the best buds roll around on their backs on the carpet for a photo shoot and pose, campily, in front of a wall of windows overlooking downtown L.A.
“Like this,” Urie says, lowering his chin and kicking out one leg, as if in a chorus line.
“That’s the shot,” Tolins says, laughing.
Actor Urie, who lives in New York, and playwright Tolins, who lives in Connecticut, have reunited for rehearsals of “Buyer & Cellar,” Tolins’ off-Broadway hit that opens at the Taper on Sunday. Urie has been in L.A. a few days; Tolins arrived a few hours ago. When the photo shoot wraps up, they collapse onto a plush, brown couch in Urie’s dressing room.
“We miss each other — I never see him since he went on tour!” Tolins says, referring to the play’s recent runs in Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“I know! I miss him!” echoes Urie, slitting open a box of chocolate Kind bars and handing one to Tolins. “Whoopi Goldberg got me hooked on these — here.”
The one-man comedy, which premiered in April 2013 and is directed by Stephen Brackett, centers on fame, materialism and the power balance in working relationships. It follows an unemployed Los Angeles actor, Alex More, who lands a job manning a pretend mall in Barbra Streisand’s basement.
Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book, “My Passion for Design,” which showcases her Malibu estate, inspired “Buyer & Cellar.” Photos of Streisand’s basement reveal a movie set-like street of faux shops in which she houses her doll collection, vintage dresses and antiques. There’s even a sweet shop, with an ever-purring yogurt machine for effect.
Tolins lived in L.A. for 17 years, and bringing the show back to the place that inspired it adds an edgy realness, he says, that will elevate the experience for audiences.
“The play is loaded with L.A. references — the Grove, KCRW — and I think there’s something to be said when you’re doing a play about the life that the people in the room are really living,” Tolins says. “I can’t wait to see what happens. I think they’ll eat it up.”
Urie, best known for his role on “Ugly Betty” as the loyal assistant to Mode magazine editor Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), plays all five roles in “Buyer & Cellar”: Alex, his judgmental boyfriend, Streisand’s house manager, husband James Brolin and Streisand herself — though he is quick to point out that he evokes rather than impersonates the star.
“It’s daunting to play someone people know so intimately, or think they do,” Urie says. Then, in a nasally, Brooklyn accent: “It’s sorta haahd to do her because I don’t have a wig or the finganails.” He flicks his imaginary, French manicured nail tips through his imaginary, blown-dry hair.
Streisand hasn’t seen the play yet, nor has she communicated with Urie or Tolins about it. But she does plan to see the show in L.A., says her publicist, Dick Guttman. What’s more, she seems to have a sense of humor about the affectionate sendup.
“It was nice to be playing on Broadway in two shows,” Streisand said via email, referring to “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers” and Tolins’ play. She’s been in dual productions “without having to leave my house.”
Urie has never met Streisand. Tolins did once, briefly, in 1993, when his “The Twilight of the Golds” was at the Pasadena Playhouse. She offered him a piece of her Kit Kat in the courtyard before the show. The audience didn’t get too crazy over her presence, but one of the actors flubbed his lines out of nervousness.
“It’s the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: You put Barbra in the house and everything changes!” Tolins says. “Everyone’s under strict orders not to tell Michael if she comes.”
“No, I can’t know. It would be weird, very strange,” Urie says. “But I’d be more concerned if the audience knew she was there. Because that would ruin the experience.”
“It could be arranged to bring her in right as the lights were going down,” Tolins says. “She could sit on the aisle and after, if she hated it, she could storm out.”
“At the end, she could come on stage and we could sing ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,’” Urie jokes.
“Maybe she will bring you flowers!” Tolins says.
The levity between them mellows any pre-opening night jitters, even as a booming mike check proceeds in the background. The two have been close friends for years, prone to finishing each other’s sentences. They met through a friend in 2008, and Urie did a reading of one of Tolins’ plays a few years later. They were both on the short-lived CBS sitcom “Partners” in 2012, on which Urie starred and Tolins was a writer. Urie, 33, was a fan of Tolins, 47, as far back as high school in Plano, Texas. “I was Tolinsian!” Urie says.
Still, Tolins didn’t write “Buyer & Cellar” for Urie. It was “Modern Family” actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson whom Tolins had in mind. Ferguson’s manager, Craig Gartner, is a close friend of the playwright and suggested that Tolins adapt his humor essay, based on Streisand’s book, as a play — and as a vehicle for his client. When Ferguson couldn’t commit to the role, however, Urie was Tolins’ next call.
“He totally gets my writing,” Tolins says. “I called immediately.”
In addition to garnering rave reviews and several awards, including a 2013 Drama Desk Award and 2014 Lucille Lortel Award for off-Broadway work, “Buyer & Cellar” has been something of a celebrity magnet in New York over the last year. Jane Fonda, Barry Manilow and Bette Midler all came to see it; Joan Rivers came twice. Tolins says that one night Candice Bergen, Meg Ryan, Joy Behar, Stephen Sondheim and James Franco all were there — which makes sense, he says. “The play speaks to issues of being famous. It’s about what Barbra’s dealing with, as I imagined.”
Urie suggests the phenomenon might be slightly more endemic to Streisand herself. She’s the ultimate celebrity, he says, even in the eyes of other celebrities. “She truly is on her own, up above everyone else, as far as fame.”
“Buyer & Cellar” has been on tour for about two months — “NCIS: Los Angeles” star Barrett Foa holds down the role in New York while Urie travels — and the show has played differently, city to city, Urie says.
“In Chicago there were a lot of showbiz references that took a second,” he says. “In New York, there’s cynicism. In D.C., it was immediate word of mouth — you know how competitive everyone is in D.C., so there was a lot of ‘Oh, you gotta see this show!’”
The Taper production is a milestone for Tolins, who dreamed of having his work performed there. “It’s mind-boggling to me,” he says. “I was a subscriber here 25 years ago.”
The production heads to San Francisco in mid-August and then to Dallas in early September. There’s also talk of bringing it to London, though neither Urie or Tolins will reveal specifics. Given the play’s inherent upstairs-downstairs theme, Urie says, it seems a natural fit for the U.K.
“It’s interesting to me what the play says about the class system,” he says. “They’re both in show business, but she’s at the top of the heap and he’s at the bottom of the barrel. The main house, the cellar.”
Urie and Tolins have also sold a sitcom pitch to the USA Network, and Tolins just finished writing the first draft of the pilot.
“It’s called ‘Majordomo,’ and it would star Michael as a struggling documentarian in New York who ends up working for a very rich friend,” Tolins says. “It’s very much in the ‘Buyer & Cellar’ vein.”
In the meantime, prior to opening night in L.A., they have just a few lines left to wrestle with: What they would say to Streisand, in person, should she show up?
“I’d say thank you,” Urie says. “For giving us so much inspiration. She’s never been ashamed of her eccentricities, she’s never shied away from anything. She’s always been herself — out there and proud and a force to be reckoned with.”
“I’d say: ‘Can I see the cellar?’”
‘Buyer & Cellar’
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug. 17.
Tickets: $25-$85 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
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