Actor Michael Urie is best known for his work as colorful and meddling assistant Marc St. James in the long running ABC series, Ugly Betty. His scenes with the statuesque Vanessa Williams exemplified two actors at the top of their game who clearly delight in being bad. However, Urie, a Julliard-trained actor, has significant stage credits, including notable Broadway runs in Angels in America and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Though, a seemingly underground play based on a strange-but-true pop-culture footnote quietly became a break-out hit for both playwright Jonathan Tolins and its star, Urie. Buyer & Cellar tells the story of a struggling actor (Urie) who takes on the oddest of odd jobs by working in Barbra Streisand's basement mall (which is actually a real thing that exists in Ms. Streisand's Malibu home). In doing so, he encounters the star and awkwardness and hilarity ensues.
After playing the role for more than 300 performances off-Broadway, Urie recently left the show to prepare for a multi-city tour, with the first stop in Chicago's Broadway Playhouse, May 6 - June 15. I recently had the chance to chat with the charming Urie, who is clearly enthusiastic about this opportunity to bring this one-person comedy to new audiences across the country.
I see on Twitter that you've been exploring Chicago. What's your experience been like?
This is actually my first visit to Chicago, and I've only had a few days to explore. There's so much I want to do; so much I want to see. This really is a remarkable theatre town. Last night I went to Second City and caught their latest revue. It was so funny, and so polished! And they ended the act with a section of improv -- which, as a performer, terrifies me. But they do it so, so well!
What about this show has made it such a hit? On paper, it seems so niche, very off-Broadway. Is it the Streisand factor?
Well, Steisand is what got the play on the map. Absolutely. But I think what's kept it running is it's simply good storytelling. It's not a sketch -- it's a play. And Jonathan [Tolin, playwright] has done a great job making this story something that audiences respond to. I can't tell you how many times I've heard guys telling their dates, "I didn't think I was gonna like this, but I really got into it." It also requires people to use their imagination -- as it's a one man show, it requires an audience to fill in the characters I'm playing, and not many shows offer that opportunity. Too often everything is spoon fed to us and we become passive observers. You need to be actively engaged to follow this play's twists and turns -- and there are many.
I understand this is your first tour. What made you decide to leave the still-running production and tour with this show?
Yes, it is my first tour! While I've done my share of regional theatre, I thought this was a great opportunity to see the country while sharing this play with others outside of New York. I think people will really like it.
I know you've been asked this question in the past, but I have to check in: has Streisand herself contacted you about this show?
No -- she has not contacted me. But she is aware of this show. Her managers have seen it, and others close to her have seen it. Apparently, she got wind of an interview I did for Entertainment Weekly, where, when asked what I'd do if she came to see the show, I said, "I'd shit myself." As I understand it, when hearing I'd said that, her response was, "He's smart, huh?"
Fantastic. Speaking of divas, I have to ask about one of my favorites: Patti LuPone. What was it like working with her on Ugly Betty? [LuPone played Urie's strong-headed mother in an emotionally charged episode where Urie's character comes out to her].
She's really wonderful. Because we both graduated from Julliard, I could connect with her, but, of course, I wanted to learn more from her and hear some of her stories. It was so fun -- the cast were all huge fans and we spent a good deal of time playing our favorite Patti YouTube clips for her, which she got a real kick out of. My only regret is we only had one episode together -- I wish we could have brought her back.
Yes! And that story line seemed so unresolved.
Totally! But, to the writers' credit, it reflected reality. Not everything ends up with a nice bow.
Ain't that the truth! But, this play seems to have given you a nice gift. I'm looking forward to seeing you in it!
Thanks! I'll be there!
"Buyer & Cellar" plays at Chicago's Broadway Playhouse May 6 - June 15. For more information, go here >