From ‘Betty’ to Babs, Plano native Michael Urie prepares for a rite of passage: His North Texas professional stage debut in the one-man comedy ‘Buyer & Cellar’
If you ask most knowledgeable Americans to name the country’s preeminent school for drama, most will probably reply “Juilliard.” But those in the know — especially in North Texas — might add, “Collin County Community College.” That’s where recent Tony Award nominee Brian J. Smith (The Glass Menagerie) attended before he went to Juilliard … and it’s where he met Michael Urie.
“That guy’s a movie star,” Urie says of Smith, over a bottle of Ozarka at Dallas’ City Performance Hall, the venue he’ll be appearing in next month when his one-man show, Buyer & Cellar, makes its regional debut. “I encouraged him to apply to Juilliard.” Both men count among their classmates Jessica Chastain. Not too shabby company.
But Urie is no slouch himself. He first shot to fame on the hit TV show Ugly Betty, playing the conniving, bitchy assistant to the Wintour-esque Wilhelmina Slater (played by Vanessa Williams), but has parlayed that gig into a thriving and diverse career. He’s starred in (and occasionally produced) a handful of indie films, including Petunia (written and directed by another North Texan, Ash Christian); returned to television on the short-lived gay comedy Partners; and perhaps most notably, appeared off-Broadway in Buyer & Cellar, the show he’s now bringing back to his home town. But it’s really a debut of its own kind for the quick-witted Dallas native.
“As soon as I knew we were going on tour, I began begging [the producers] to book this city,” he says, eyes twinkling. “I really had special feelings about that. After I graduated from high school I went to Quad C for a year, and I did children’s theater, but not any professional or even community-theater performances. I know a lot of people [in the Dallas theater community], but never have been onstage in Dallas or done musicals at Casa Manana or any of those things.”
He’s picked a fine piece to remedy that blind spot in his resume. Urie first created his role in Buyer & Cellar — in which he played Alex Moore, an out-of-work actor in Los Angeles who, to pay the bills, takes a job working in the basement of Barbra Streisand’s Malibu home, curating her famed collection of memorabilia — in the off-Broadway Barrow Street Theater in June of 2013. He got accustomed to the role, performing it, he recalls, “368 times. I kept a tally on the wall, like in prison.”
Despite all those performances, several still stand out. “One time, someone passed out and I had to stop the show,” he says. “I thought, does that actually happen in the theater? One time I was holding a coffee table book and was spinning it, and hit myself my face. And then there was the time when all the critics came one the same night!” The good news was, they all got it — his reviews were excellent. “That’s the perfect audience,” he laughs: “Critics.”
The show was such a hit that even when Urie left, it continued to run, closing just last month. But in the meantime, when Urie got the chance to take it on tour, he leapt at it.
Coming back to a show was a big decision, even as much as he loved doing it. Committing to a lengthy tour in a part he carries single-handedly is an all-consuming process, he admits.
“I needed to take time off from it before the tour,” he says. “The year I did it, I didn’t eat anything with a sauce, because I can’t be burping and farting onstage! And I’m a workaholic. Last night, I was trying to get to sleep so I was going through the play. Drifting off I would be speaking the lines in my head. The play is so conversational.”
But he’s prepared to revisit it — and knows he’ll have to give up sauces again.
In part his enthusiasm for it is because it’s an ideal show for a gay audience — and for its gay star. After all, a play about La Streisand? What could be better?
“The place it mentions is real,” Urie emphasizes, although the plot is a fiction. “The mall is real, Barbra Streisand is real, but the story is not real and the guy is not … as far as we know. She really does have a collection and she gives tours. It’s an antique shop and a dress shop and everything else [you can imagine].”
Despite its subject matter, Urie himself has never met Streisand. But you never know. She could always show up at a performance one night … maybe even in Dallas.
That’s reason enough to come.
Buyer & Cellar by Jonathan Tolins. With Michael Urie. City Performance Hall, 2420 Flora St. Sept. 3–6. ATTPAC.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 15, 2014.