Aisle View: Barbra's Basement

This past spring saw not one but four solo shows, three of them Broadway vehicles for major star ladies and one unassuming off-Broadway effort with a skinny guy you probably never heard off. Buyer & Cellar -- starring Michael Urie, written by Jonathan Tolins -- was the downtown David battling for attention with three uptown Goliaths, in the persons of Holland Taylor, as Governor Ann Richards in Ann; Fiona Shaw, as the mother of God in The Testament of Mary; and Bette Midler as -- well, as Bette Midler playing super agent Sue Mengers in I'll Eat You Last. Ms. Midler was the most financially successful of them, drawing millions of dollars-worth of ticketbuyers while providing a diverting ninety minutes sitting on the couch. For entertainment, warmth and laughter, though, the unheralded Mr. Urie took the title.

Buyer & Cellar -- which played two months at the cramped Rattlestick Theatre -- has now transplanted itself across Seventh Avenue to the Barrow Street. The "buyer" in question is none other than Barbra-without-the-"A"; the "cellar" is the playwright's musing on the star's real-life Malibu basement. (In her book My Passion for Design, Streisand tells us that in lieu of basement storage rooms she designed "a street of shops like I had seen at Winterthur," the decorative arts museum near Wilmington, Delaware.)

There is no reason Buyer & Cellar should be as funny -- or as heartwarming -- as it is; on the laugh-o-meter, it is the funniest thing we've seen since One Man, Two Guvnors. Playwright Tolins (Twilight of the Golds) has contrived a delicacy as deliciously refreshing as -- well, as frozen yogurt with rainbow sprinkles like they used to serve at Carvel in Brooklyn in the early 1950s.

Tolins and director Stephen Brackett have found the perfect actor to carry their vehicle. Urie doesn't impersonate Barbra here; he inhabits her. Working without makeup, costumes or any effects whatsoever, he straightforwardly -- and convincingly -- recounts conversations between his fictional character (an out-of-work actor named Alex) and the fictional Barbra. Urie is exceptionally good at this, mind you; he also limns a couple of other major characters -- Barry, Alex's boyfriend, and the tartly wry house manager Sharon, who looks like "Cloris Leachman right after she found out Phyllis was cancelled." Somehow, Urie -- without makeup or costumes or anything -- does. Look like a cancelled Cloris Leachman, that is. Urie also gives us, in passing, a very funny James Brolin in quest of frozen yogurt.

What makes the thing work is not only the comedy but the warmth. Fans of Streisand, you would think, are the core audience for this play; so much so that non-fans might figure it's not for them. Which is a mistake. As someone who doesn't much care -- either way -- about the star and her persona and her foibles and the gossip that surrounds her every movement, I found myself instantly enchanted by the play and even more delighted on my second visit.

And let us say that while Streisand is generally said to be controlling and demanding and what might be described as "difficult," the portrait of her limned by Urie and Tolins is immensely human, inviting and likable. And funny.