A theater homecoming of sorts happens this week when Michael Urie returns to Dallas for an off-Broadway show. The Plano native, who starred in ABC’s Ugly Betty, is the one and only star of Buyer & Cellar, playing September 3-6 at Dallas City Performance Hall.
The play has an unusual setting: the basement of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu estate, where she has built what can only be described as an underground mall. Urie plays the mall’s one employee, Alex More, as well as a variety of other characters, including Babs herself.
Urie sat down for a roundtable interview this past summer to discuss all aspects of the show, the role Ugly Betty has played in his life and what Streisand thinks about the show.
CultureMap: For those unfamiliar with Buyer & Cellar, tell us about the show and what we can expect from you in it.
Urie: Buyer & Cellar is the totally fictional account of a completely made-up guy who works in the absolutely real basement mall at Barbra Streisand’s house. Ms. Streisand, when she built her latest Malibu house, put in a street of shops in the basement — a doll shop, a dress shop, a gift shop, a sweets shop, an antiques store — and they’re filled with her crap — collectibles, antiques and stuff.
Jon Tolins, the brilliant playwright behind Buyer & Cellar, imagines that there is a clerk down there, and he has a customer — just the one. I play Alex More, the struggling actor who gets hired to run the shops. I play Barbra, I play the woman who runs the house, I play Barbra’s husband Jim, I play Alex’s boyfriend Barry and a few other little brief parts.
I call it a fantasia. It’s like a fantasia of what it would be like to work in Barbra Streisand’s basement mall.
Media roundtable: Is there much of a set involved with the play?
Well, the set’s beautiful, but it forces the audience to use their imagination. Even though I play all these different parts and it takes place in the mall and all around Barbra’s estate and at other houses, the set is really minimal. There are some projections, but nothing literal, so the audience really has to use their imagination.
When I’m Barbra, they have to imagine Barbra. I mean, I do a little bit, but it’s not like an impression, and it’s certainly not a drag act. It’s more like an interpretation of her — a little bit of a voice, a little bit of a physicalization, but really you have to fill in the blank.
Media roundtable: How do you switch between characters? Is it a dramatic switch, or is it more subtle?
It’s really subtle. Imagine a guy who can tell a story he knows really, really well, and he just sort of becomes the other people. I want to immediately remind you of the different characters, but I don’t look like them or sound like them completely. There are no real costume changes or anything like that.
The reason it works, I think, is because the play is so smart. It’s easy to track because the writing is so good.
CultureMap: What’s your level of nervousness or excitement to be part of such a high-profile production coming back here?
Well, I’m excited, and I’m really happy that it’s been a hit. It was a bit of a gamble since it had never been produced before. It hadn’t been workshopped or even been read publicly before when we started doing it. For a new play off-off-Broadway to suddenly have a production without having a tryout of some kind is very rare. I was a lot more nervous then than I am now.
Now I’m nervous because I’ve been playing to New Yorkers and to tourists. Now I’m going to be playing to local theatergoers. I know the audiences here because I was one of the audience, and I know that people here are not only hungry and eager, but they’re smart and they come ready to enjoy it.
Coming here was my No. 1 request. When we started talking about a tour, Dallas was at the top of my list.
Media roundtable: How did you get involved with the play and Jon Tolins?
I had done some readings of another play of his, and then we both got hired to work on the CBS sitcom Partners, and we were displaced to Los Angeles. Because we were away from home, we became really good friends. It was during that time that he slipped me the play. He had written it at the urging of a good friend of his who is a talent manager that represents Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
So originally the play was written for Jesse, and when Jon gave it to me, he said, “This is a really good play that Jesse Tyler Ferguson is going to do, but maybe someday you’ll do it too.” I was like, “Uh huh, great, sure, fantastic. I’m so happy for Jesse.” But I read it, and I really liked it.
Then Partners gets canceled, and we’re both back in New York. Jon said that there were some theaters that were really interested, and Jesse was going to do Shakespeare in the Park during his upcoming Modern Family hiatus, so Jesse had given his blessing for me to do it instead.
Almost immediately, the Rattlestick Theater said, “We’ll do it. Can you be in rehearsals in a month?” It was just crazy. That doesn’t happen, ever, in New York. It all worked out really well, and I owe Jesse Tyler Ferguson a drink.
Media roundtable: What was your knowledge of Barbra Streisand before all this?
I was a fan, but not like a mega fan, and certainly not any kind of aficionado. But my mom was a big fan, and I have vivid memories of watching her big comeback concert in 1996 with my mom. I liked it, but I learned to appreciate it through my mom’s eyes. I even specifically asked her, “What does that mean? Why is that good?” Why people loved her so much, I learned a lot of that through my mom.
When my mom came to see the play, and Jon and I were telling the story of how I got the job, I came to the part about how it was written for Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and my mom went, “Oh! He would’ve been great!”
Media roundtable: Since you’ve done TV and movies, what do you think is your favorite form of acting to do?
I always wanted to come back to the theater. Theater is like a drug, and I’ve never gone very far from it. Every substantial break from Ugly Betty was spent on stage, and the show opened a lot of doors. To be able to be a headliner in something in New York without having your own hit on stage? TV cred really helps. I mean, they still say Ugly Betty on my posters. It really helps.
Media roundtable: Are you still good friends with all the Ugly Betty cast?
Oh, yeah. America (Ferrara), Vanessa (Williams), Judith (Light), Tony (Plana) and Mark Indelicato have all been to the show; Vanessa’s come twice. Becki Newton hasn’t seen it yet because I hate her and she’s a bitch! No, she has children and lives in LA — she’ll come when we go out there.
I’ve made a movie with Ana Ortiz, and Becki and I Facetime once a month. I see Judith Light all the time in New York and in LA; we’re on the same schedule. America just arranged a mini-reunion in LA. It was such a formative experience for all of us. It was a family.
CultureMap: Have you been able to watch Judith Light on Dallas?
Yes! Oh my god — that scene where she snorted cocaine? That was crazy! She’s so good on that show. I’m so happy for her. And she’s got an Amazon series coming with Jeffrey Tambor that looks really interesting. And she won two Tonys, so I’m not saying that Ugly Betty put her on the map, but …
CultureMap: Has Barbra Streisand heard about the show, and has she reacted to it?
She has heard about it, and people who are close to her have been to it. Entertainment Weekly did a really nice piece about us for their “Best of” at the end of the year, and in it I was asked what I would do if Barbra came to see the play. I said I would shit my pants.
Somebody told me that she read that and said, “Oh, yeah, he’s smart.”