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Struggling actor Alex More (Michael Urie) is "not that big a Barbra queen." So when he discovers that his new job playing shopkeep in a wealthy woman's underground mall (in reality, a collection of personal valuables carefully arranged in imitation stores) is in the service of none other than Barbra Streisand, he's more excited about getting to leave his Disney day job than working in the home of a celebrity.
Urie, best known for his portrayal of personal assistant Marc St. James in Ugly Betty and in the Off-Broadway play The Temperamentals, is engaging from start to finish. He's also uncannily versatile. He plays every role, switching between two sides of a conversation without missing a beat. One minute he's Alex's flamboyant boyfriend Barry, the next he's the Lady Herself.
It's a tough trick to pull off, and under Stephen Brackett's direction, Urie does it with ease. Eventually, we almost forget he's talking to himself.
The entire production, actually, is a triumph of minimalism. Andrew Boyce's set is simple. A pale room with a few choice pieces of white furniture is amazingly adaptable. Alex Koch's projections provide just the right suggestion of scene. And Eric Southern's lighting changes are often the perfect impetus for shifts in tone and speed.
The mall is Barbra's fantasy world, and Alex is there to enhance the magic. Consequently, Barbra is initially slow to allow reality to enter this sacred space. She tells Alex to call her Sadie and fervently suspends her disbelief — even going so far as haggling with Alex over the price of one of her own dolls.
It's a child-like fancy, one which Alex happily indulges. And Barbra's relationship with Alex, who is neither fawning nor especially real to her, becomes an antidote of sorts to the loneliness she feels even in her undoubtedly charmed life.
The pair eventually develop a closer relationship as Alex spends more and more time at the mall in pursuit of Barbra's affection. In a sense, he achieves it. Barbra reveals her desire to be beautiful and displays her strange need for validation from a virtual stranger, despite the adoration she receives from millions.
But the intimacy comes at the expense of Alex's home life when he is forced to choose between the old myth of Barbra and a functional reality with Barry. All the while, Barbra seems determined to keep Alex in the basement, removed from her real life upstairs. When she does finally allow Alex to cross that threshold, their relationship crumbles.
That a famous and successful person can also be unsatisfied and vulnerable is not an altogether original concept. But the special place that Barbra has in gay cultural heritage seems to suggest something larger about the role of mythic heroes in modern gay life.
Garland, who comes from an earlier wave of gay icons, may have unwittingly sold her misery to a gay audience at a time when gays themselves suffered greatly. When Alex accuses Barbra, a more contemporary figure, of treating him like another acquisition in her mall, Tolins seems to suggest that those commodified roles of fan and star, buyer and seller, have reversed over time.
Garland becomes a focal point in a climactic clash between Alex and Barry, after Barry discounts Barbra's struggles in comparison to Garland's."Okay, yes, maybe she's ridiculous and lucky and maybe she doesn't have the right to complain about anything," Alex says. "But maybe you don't have the right to complain about anything either."
The implications of Garland's and Streisand's differences for disparate generations of gays who worship them are at the ideological center of this play. It's an idea wrapped up in the question of the extent to which gays still struggle in contemporary America. This is a prominent theme in Tolins' recent work, including the last play he presented at the Rattlestick Theater in 2003, The Last Sunday In June While this play is narrower in its scope, it bears the same humor and compassion. These are Tolins' trademarks, and they are bound to help hold his place as an important voice in a new century of American theater.
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Book of Mormon -CD
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