It’s not going to get much better than this. Forget the Great White Way and its 90 percent overpriced snore-fest: If you want the legitimate experience of being uplifted, of that unexplainable moment when you’re out of your seat cause you’re laughing so hard, or that realization that you haven’t checked your watch for an hour—or broke theater etiquette and started texting—or when you discover that a smile hasn’t left your face all night, or, most astonishingly, when you feel that “ah” moment of being transported into someone else’s world, then this amazingly long sentence is worth the read.
Two shows have rocked New York of late, two wonderful shows, two shows that remind you of why you loved theater in the first place, and both are musts. Interestingly enough, and maybe not so obvious at first, both have a lot in common.
For starters, we have the talk of the town Buyer & Cellar at the Barrow Street Theatre. This one man/one diva play has, by far, the cleverest conceit in years. An unemployed actor, Alex More (Michael Urie, who plays every role), accepts a job as a sales clerk in Barbra Streisand’s boutique of shops—in her Malibu house—where the sole customer is Babs herself.
Inspired by, yes, Streisand’s soon-to-be notorious book My Passion for Design, playwright Jonathan Tolins brilliantly weaves a tale of idol worship centered around what could easily be considered the fictitious version of Streisand; the one the press—and, strangely enough, gay men—have invented over the decades. She’s litigious, she fires people like others play the Lottery, and she’s as untouchable as she is out of touch.
As Urie tells us in his pre-play talk, he doesn’t “do” Streisand, and that’s “sort of” the truth. His Babs is a bit like Streisand meets Cher through the eyes of Norma Desmond. Regardless, his back-and-forth between his character and her are so seamless, she becomes a real entity. By the end of the story, there’s so much (dare I say it?) passion, you’re likely to forget the encounter never took place.
Once More (and, here too, you’re likely to forget that Urie is not playing himself) starts his job at Streisand’s soon-to-be-notorious underground shopping mall—I’ve not read the book, so I don’t know the accuracy of the descriptions, and Urie, in one of his many dazzling double-take eye-roll one-liners, muses over whether or not anyone actually has), he waits impatiently among the dolls and Funny Girl costumes and Frozen Yogurt machine and popcorn maker until Streisand finally shows up… to shop.
To delve into the semantics of their relationship would be a spoiler of the worst sorts, because it’s an unprecedented hoot. I will say that a scene involving a doll, a price tag, and a coupon is one of the funniest bits I’ve roared at since Barbra and Ryan O’Neal shared a hotel bathroom together.
But Buyer & Cellar isn’t just a comedy sketch; it’s a well-rounded play with a great supporting cast. There’s Streisand’s smart-ass female assistant, and, in a wickedly, dead-on interpretation by Urie, James Brolin, who descends to the shopping mall for a late-night snack, and who, thanks to Urie’s talents, makes us laugh out loud in spite of, or because of, the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.
More also has a boyfriend, who’s the perennial musical-theater queen we all know and who we can take in small doses. He knows everything about Streisand, and loves to hate most of it. The “Streisand Doing Gypsy” monologue is a bitch-queen comic-fest. More’s boyfriend is one of those guys who spouts out scholarly philosophy on the greatest star while undercutting all of her value in the same breath. It’s hilarious, while still touching on the self-loathing of gays we’ve pretended left after The Boys in the Band, but who still exist in the perimeters of the building. In the 21st century, they’ve taken to social media platforms to both learn and extort diva knowledge, and Tolins has the good sense to show the humor of it… I think.
Much has been written about Streisand’s lack of response to this play, and one could easily see her loving it or hating it, and rightfully so either way. Do a little research on Streisand and you’ll discover that she’s not particularly litigious, at least by the strict definition of the word, and has probably fired less people in her lifetime than most male directors have in a single film. Untouchable and out of touch? That’s your call, that’s Tollins’ call, and that is most of the public’s call. If Streisand can find humor in the person on stage impersonating an impersonation of her, she should buy the rights to the film and star. It could be her funniest film since What’s Up, Doc?
Speaking of divas who are somewhat mythical, The Vaudevillians, at the Laurie Beecham Theatre (which ends its extended several times over run on November 11th), is the funniest cabaret-esque romp in town. And probably out of town. Jinkx Monsoon plays Kitty Witless, a former vaudevillian star who toured the country with her piano playing husband, Dr. Dan Von Dandy, played by Major Scales, until an avalanche froze them in time. Lo and be ‘ho, a global-warming-induced thaw brought them back to life, where they have discovered that some of the most famous tunes in history were stolen from them! Sound ridiculous? It is, and it’s that rare talented duo who can pull something like this off.
As good as Mr. Scales is as pianist and vocalist, this is Jinkx’s show, with the former playing an R-rated version of Desi to her slutty, sexed-starved, drugged-up Lucy. Monsoon is a drag queen second, an actor, comic gem, and terrific singer first. As she delights in retelling the glory days that typically involve the men who (ahem) inspired her, the two play jazz-age versions of “their” greatest hits, the funniest being a re-worked, re-worded Madonna’s “Music.” Throw in Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and a ballad-esque Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and you’ve got a show that even the kids who claim drag queens only make references to 1970s icons can enjoy. Kiki and Herb are the obvious comparisons, which is a high compliment, but Monsoon’s Witless is still an ingénue, an acid-tongued lady who could be the best friend of Coco Peru and the object of Sandra Bernhard’s affections.
Along the 90-minute way, Kitty seduces a male audience member before performing a physical stunt as impressive as it is hysterical, re-enacts the opening number of the duo’s “lost” musical sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, and pretty much has her way with the audience every time she ventures into the crowd—her improvised timing is auto-tune perfect. She’s also so convincing as a woman you might do a quick Google search to make sure you haven’t been sucked in by more than her humor.
Both of these shows are refreshing, thankful reminders that theater can still work, and work beautifully, and that all has not been lost in our city of broken Broadway dreams. The set for Buyer & Cellar is practically nonexistent, and The Vaudevillians stage, like all shows at the Beecham, consists of a black piano and a lot of marking tape. You won’t care.
Like last spring’s splendid Bette Midler Broadway show, I’ll Eat You Last, to call these productions anything less than fully realized pieces would be and insult to the truth of storytelling and the creative process we crave in theater. There are no gimmicks, no manipulation, no focus groups. There is only talent and the desire to inspire placed in front of the desire to sell tickets. It is to miss them that would be theater treason.
For information on Buyer & Cellar visit www.telecharge.com. For more on The Vaudevillians, visit www.spincyclenyc.com.