It might not quite be "like buttah," but the Barbra Streisand-obsessed comedy "Buyer and Cellar," which opened Wednesday at San Francisco's Curran Theatre, is nonetheless a rich and decadently hilarious theatrical experience.
The solo show about one man's odyssey into the famed diva's inner sanctum works because it manages to be both snarky and sympathetic, cashing in every obvious Barbra Streisand joke with sparkling wit and ingenuity, then turning the punch lines on their head by daring to present the real Barbra Streisand -- or at least the real Barbra Streisand as we would imagine her to be. Along the way, Jonathan Tolins' hit Broadway show manages to generate a lot of laughs and make some poignant observations about the loneliness of megastardom and the volatile ties between celebrities and celebrity worshipers.
"Cellar" also works because of an utterly beguiling performance by Michael Urie, best known for portraying the occasionally catty costume designer on TV's "Ugly Betty." He is the sole performer and acts as narrator while playing a handful of characters, including Streisand herself. Urie originated the role on Broadway and it's hard to imagine that anyone else could make the show as memorable. He is an energetic, limber storyteller, likable and possessing a knack for the comic pause -- letting a joke linger just long enough before setting the hook -- that I've rarely seen rivaled on the theater stage or in the comedy club.
Lots of shows about famous people mix fact and fantasy, and this one grinds them like spices in a mortar, so it's good to quickly identify which is which here.
Streisand, as the show points out, really did build a handful of underground "shops" at her Malibu estate and fill them full of dolls, costumes and other decorative items and collectibles she had assembled over the years. That's no revelation; she wrote about it in her book, "My Passion for Design," which is heavily referenced here.
The fiction is in the tale of Alex, an unemployed Los Angeles actor who gets a job at this underground mall and eventually gets to meet Streisand. We also get to meet Barry, Alex's snippy boyfriend who constantly denigrates the diva, even if he seems to know everything about her, as well as James Brolin, Streisand's still-hunky husband, and the diva's dismissive assistant.
Working on a small, white set sporting minimal furniture and a tea set, Urie plays all the parts broadly, with no attempt at real impersonation, especially with regards to Babs herself ("enough people do her -- even some women -- so you don't need me to," he quips early on). Director Stephen Brackett's pacing is brisk and clean, as if he wants nothing to interrupt Urie as he unspools his engaging tale.
When Alex finally meets his new boss, it's a hugely funny payoff, as Streisand ventures into her mall and begins to haggle with Alex over the price of a doll she already owns (guess who eventually wins?).
As the two eventually warm to each other, the Streisand that emerges is needy, demanding, ridiculously frugal, touchingly maternalistic, and both desirous of praise and weary of constantly being evaluated -- and, of course, entirely imagined. The fact that Tolins can create such an intriguing portrait of the diva owes to his clever creation of a relationship between a world-famous star and a going-nowhere actor, and to Urie's ability to slip seamlessly between breathless admirer and catty critic armed with deft references to such Streisand comic goldmines as "Yentl" and "The Prince of Tides."
"Cellar" doesn't always shine. It can be distracting to jump between Barbra Streisand the punchline and Barbra Streisand the person. Barry the boyfriend occasionally seems like little more than a snarky gay cliché. And poor James Brolin comes across as a wooden John Wayne impersonation.
The less said about how the relationship between Babs and Alex comes crashing down the better, as it results in one of the 100-minute show's best comic moments. When it's all said and done, we don't really come away with a better understanding of the gloriously enigmatic Streisand. But it's fun to think that we maybe we have, and that we got to laugh a heck of a lot along the way.
'BUYER & CELLAR'
By Jonathan Tolins, performed by Michael Urie
Through: Aug. 31
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45-$210, 888-746-1799. www.shnsf.com