Plano Native, Ugly Betty Star Michael Urie Brings His Hit Off-Broadway Show Home
It's a sunny day in May, and I see Michael Urie's toothy smile before I've even opened the glass door to the City Performance Hall. He's home from New York City for the weekend, quietly hosting press conferences before heading to Austin for a wedding. The tour of his hit off-Broadway show, Buyer & Cellar, hasn't been announced yet, but Urie is giddy to put a September stop in Dallas on his calendar. It's set to be the last stop on the mini-national tour and the season opener for the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Off-Broadway on Flora series at the City Performance Hall, September 3-6.
"I'm excited for my high school teachers and some family to see me on stage," says Urie, a Plano Senior High School graduate. "I wouldn't have guessed that I'd spend this much time with Barbra Streisand."
He's not sharing the stage with Babs -- at least, not exactly. Since 2013 he's been acting in a one-man show about a struggling L.A. actor who works in the basement of her Malibu home, where the eccentric madame built a shopping mall.
The show is fiction, but the premise is reality. Playwright Jonathan Tolins first wrote a playful essay about this residential anomaly after flipping through the pages of Streisand's 2010 coffee table book, My Passion for Design. It's a large book with page after page of pictures of her rolling country estate that rests above a row of faux storefronts. Later, he rewrote it as a multi-character monologue.
At first glance, it probably sounded a bit frivolous for Rattlestick Playwrights Theater - a New York City theater known for producing edgy new plays. But audiences accustomed to taking playwriting seriously were the perfect outlet for Buyer & Cellar's debut.
"What do you call a debutante's big day? Oh! It needed to have the right coming out," says Urie. "And there are certain places where it could come off the wrong way. It's not campy, it's not a drag act and it's very smart and very detailed and layered and I knew that the people going to see a show at the Rattlestick would have that cap on. Not the snarky cap."
Urie's faith in the piece was well-deserved. It took the Big Apple by surprise when both the critics and the audience were giving it good word of mouth. No, good is too little a word. Critics all-caps LOVED this little show that went beyond Barbra send-up, exploring notions of celebrity, professional relationships, and superficiality.
Ben Brantley beseeched New York Times readers not to miss out saying, "A triumph! I tell you to GO. The most talked about new comedy of the season. It goes down as easily and tastily as lemon sorbet, and the only pain in your stomach it creates is the kind that comes from laughing too hard."
For his performance as Alex More (and four other character including Babs) in the show, Urie received the Drama Desk Award, Clarence Derwent Award, and nominations for the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle awards. And if you ask people who "knew him when," they'll tell you this success is not surprising.
"I have known Michael since he was a student in high school," says Brad Baker, chair of the theater department at Collin College. "Back then, I told him then that he was a career waiting to happen."
Baker is the man Urie credits for pushing him to audition for the Juilliard School. It was on a post-graduation trip to see theater and visit schools in New York City that Baker planted the idea in his head.
"When we toured [Juilliard] it seemed like this impossible thing for me. I was very happy to be going to community college, with lousy grades and a few rejection letters," Urie says. "But Brad Baker said, 'you have to audition for this place.' I thought he was crazy, but I auditioned and got in."
From there, Urie became a stage and screen actor, performing in everything from Shakespeare to indie films. He earned a bit of celebrity with his role in Ugly Betty, as the assistant to Vanessa Williams' character.
"I had been working in the theater before television and done a lot of regional theater and some off-off Broadway, but then there was Ugly Betty," he says. "Having a face that people could put on a poster or a name that people could put in a press release that opened a lot of doors."
And now, Urie is bringing that famous boyish face home. At least, for a little while.
See Buyer & Cellar at the City Performance Hall September 3-6. Tickets start at $35 and are available at attpac.org.