Michael Urie shines in 'Buyer and Cellar' at Shakespeare Theatre Company

If like me, you are a longtime, totally committed Barbra Streisand fan and just had to have her coffee table book "My Passion for Design," you probably only leafed through this curious celebration of her meticulously planned Malibu estate.

But you surely were stopped cold by the photos of the basement shopping arcade, which contains The Greatest Star's collectibles and a sweet shop, complete with popcorn- and frozen yogurt-dispensing machines. It's the sort of thing you just couldn't make up.

Jonathan Tolins presumably found himself equally gobsmacked by that chapter, but when he regained composure, he had a hilarious concept for a one-man play. The result is "Buyer and Cellar," a brilliantly crafted concoction that imagines an out-of-work actor being hired to work as the sole clerk in that astounding underground quasi-shopping mall.

The show opened last year Off Broadway starring Michael Urie and became a runaway hit. With a different actor, it's still running there.

Urie signed on for a North American tour that, thanks to Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, is now in our region providing 100 minutes of laughter and priceless mental images. (Next stop is Los Angeles, where, I imagine, there will be a lot of scanning the audience to see if the play's subject will finally turn up to see what the fuss is all about.)

Tolins' script could withstand a little tightening, but it is so clever and eventful that it never loses its grip. Even the introduction, with lots of legal-protection reminders that this is a fictional, parodistic work, contains some great zingers.

And once the yarn starts spinning, it is absurdly easy to buy into the crazy scenario, to get all caught up in the experiences of a guy named Alex More and his days dusting the merchandise in this strange world, waiting for a customer -- The Customer. 

Urie, who could not be funnier or more endearing if he tried, makes everything deliciously vivid. He's a flexible actor whose eyes that reflect every shift of tone, and angular shoulders that can be put into unusually communicative service. 

He differentiates characters with aplomb -- Alex's boyfriend, Streisand's wary housekeeper, James Brolin, et al. (With a single, slow turn, he even conjures up Bea Arthur for an amusing instant.)

If Urie's version of Barbra looks like she suffers from a back disorder and sounds a little too much like a basso, no matter. It adds up to a plausible portrait. A fundamentally likable one, too. Sure, this Barbra has been painted with some of the usual, stereotypical colors. But let's face it, there is room for criticism (after all, perfectionists aren't necessarily perfect).

The cool thing is that the Streisand evoked here emerges as multidimensional and sympathetic. And funny. One of the most inspired comic bits has Streisand visiting Bee's Doll Shop (that's really the name) and asking Alex the price of one of the items -- one of her items, needless to say. He plays along too well, which leads to what may be the heartiest laughs in the show.   

"Buyer and Cellar" isn't solely about a giga-star and her magical spread in California. It's about celebrity worship, nostalgia, relationships, holding onto things, maintaining standards, aspirations, camp humor. There's something sweet and earnest at the center of this confection, which counts for a lot.

The production is smoothly directed by Stephen Brackett and given just enough visual substance by scenic designer Andrew Boyce. Stowe Nelson's sound design slips in perfect instrumental snippets of Streisand's recorded legacy.

In the end, this is Urie's vehicle and he seizes it. Even after more than 400 performances, he makes you believe that he's telling his wild story for the first time, and that he actually lived every bit of it. He even makes some of us secretly wish we could land a job in that amazing cellar, too.

"Buyer and Cellar" runs through Sunday.   

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