Solo performances are always a challenge, and in Buyer & Cellar, Michael Urie takes on a triple task: In addition to playing an aspiring actor named Alex who goes to work in the (real!) mall of shops in Barbra Streisand’s Malibu basement, Urie argues with himself as Alex’s acerbic boyfriend and spars with himself as Streisand herself. Critics loved Jonathan Tolins’ play when it premiered in April, and Urie’s performance netted a Drama Desk Award and Actors Equity's prestigious Clarence Derwent Award. Newly reopened at the Barrow Street Theatre, Buyer & Cellar is the perfect summer night out, whether you own a copy of Barbra’s coffee table book My Passion for Design or not. Urie recently talked about his busy career—including a foray into film directing—with Broadway.com.
Buyer & Cellar is a such a fun evening. What did you think when you first read the script?
I thought it was hilarious. I wasn’t even thinking of doing it myself—it was a casual read for my friend Jon [Tolins]—but when it looked like I was going to be asked [to star], I read it again and got terrified of the enormity of it all. It’s 95 minutes of words, with no break; there’s no time to go offstage and have a drink of water.
It’s just you, backed by a few projections…
…and a Kit Kat bar. And [Barbra’s decorating] book. There’s nothing to hold on to.
You manage to convey Barbra Streisand without imitating her. How did that portrayal come together?
A lot of it was dictated by what Jon wrote in the prologue of the show. I explain that the basement is real and Barbra is a real person, but Alex, who works in Barbra’s basement, is absolutely not real, and none of this really happened. I also explain that I’m not going to do an impression of her; I’m just going to sort of be her, and you fill in the rest. What’s interesting is that Jon has written a series of clever scenes, so I have to treat Barbra like a character rather than an impression of an icon, with giant nails or a putty nose.
Have you gotten feedback from people who know Streisand?
I’ve heard that people are saying nice things about the show to her. I can’t imagine what it would be like for her to actually see it! The fact that she’s got a mall in her basement is funny and strange to all of us, but people say that the way she behaves in the play is very much like her. It’s a loving portrayal.
You recently directed a movie [He’s Way More Famous Than You], acted in another one [Such Good People] and guest-hosted Project Runway. You've got a lot going on.
I don’t sit around during down times. I find things to work on, whether it’s personal projects or collaborating with friends. Like this documentary I made that’s been kicking around for two years—Thank You for Judging, about high school speech and debate tournaments—there’s been some new movement with that. I wanted to be a film director when I was a kid, and now I’ve directed a movie, He’s Way More Famous Than You, that my friend Halley [Feiffer] and my partner Ryan [Spahn] wrote [and co-starred in].
What was it like to direct your boyfriend in a movie?
It was an incredible experience. Our apartment was the production office, so for two months we literally lived the movie. The producers stayed in our guest room, and our bedroom became the costume shop! The movie has done really well. We had a theatrical release and got some great reviews, and you can watch it on demand and on iTunes. It’s crazy to think that this little idea Halley and Ryan had in our apartment has come to fruition.
Is it fair to say that you’ve become more open in talking about your relationship and being identified as an actor who is gay?
I think it’s been an evolution; times have changed in the past six or seven years. I’ve been with Ryan for four and a half years now, and our relationship is part of my work. Before, I didn’t share my life with somebody, so it wasn’t relevant to the public. Part of it was privacy and part of it was relevance.
Are your two families trying to get you and Ryan to plan a wedding?
No, not so much. But they’re big parts of our lives. It’s funny, [gay marriage] is still such a new thing—I’ve just been hoping that the Supreme Court gives us some good news, and it makes more sense for the whole world.
Let’s back up for a minute. How did you get to Juilliard from Plano, Texas?
There was a period when I wanted to be a drama teacher, probably because it was the only profession in theater that I could think of. Being an actor or a director seemed so big and far away. But I had lousy grades, so I got rejected from all the local state schools I applied to. There was a period when I was failing math and my teachers were like, “You aren’t coming to theater class anymore. You’re taking math three times a day.” And I still couldn’t pass!
This story sounds like Patti LuPone. She only cared about singing in high school and ended up at Juilliard.
That’s funny—she played my mom on TV. Like mother, like son, I guess! Around the same time I was getting rejected by colleges, I was starting to have success at speech tournaments, which is basically acting. I went to community college, and my drama teacher brought us to New York, where we saw 13 shows in 10 days and toured Juilliard. He said, “This is the place for you,” and he was absolutely right. They don’t check your math scores at Juilliard, you get to study theater all day, every day, for four years. I was a fish in water—or as we say in Texas, a pig in shit.
You got a juicy part in Ugly Betty early in your career. Did that give you a leg up on stage?
I certainly was able to get into a lot more doors with a TV show under my belt. And I was able to know that if I didn’t get a [stage] job, it wouldn’t mean I had to go back to temping because I had some TV money in my pocket. Stability breeds confidence and confidence helps you act.
What happened with your most recent TV show, Partners? [Urie co-starred with Brandon Routh, Sophia Bush and David Krumholtz in the short-lived 2012 comedy.]
There are seven unaired episodes of Partners, and they’re great. I was extremely proud of that show; we were having the best time, and people were loving it. We had six and a half million viewers, which is three times as many as shows on other networks, but CBS has such a high standard of ratings that we couldn’t survive.
Well, it’s nice to have to back in New York, and we hope you stay on this coast.
Me too! It was incredible to do two years of Ugly Betty here. It’s fun to go to L.A. and drive around with the windows down and have fancy TV jobs. I won’t ever say no to that, but I always come back to the theater.
See Michael Urie in Buyer & Cellar at the Barrow Street Theatre.