NEW YORK — Michael Urie recently shared his stage with a noisy visitor and was not amused. He was rehearsing his one-man show and the buzzing fly around his face was grossing him out.
"No," he told the annoying insect, in full diva-mode. "I work alone."
The former "Ugly Betty" star certainly doesn't need any help in Jonathan Tolins' utterly charming play "Buyer & Cellar," which reopened this week at the Barrow Street Theatre following a successful stint at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
The Juilliard-trained Urie plays a struggling actor who lands a job as a clerk in an underground mall of quaint shops. The weird part is the mall is part of Barbra Streisand's estate and only she goes down there.
Over 100 minutes, Urie plays out more than 30 scenes in which his character has a fraught tango with the fictional Babs, eventually teasing out questions about celebrity, materialism and fame. It's moving and sweet and funny.
"I basically don't start speaking," Urie says.
Since "Ugly Betty" ended, he basically hasn't stopped working — from the off-Broadway turn in "The Temperamentals" to the powerful revival of "Angels in America" to a vibrant "The Cherry Orchard" to the big Broadway musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
"One thing they all have in common is that they're all funny," says Urie, 32, who is also a movie director and filmed the upcoming "Such Good People" with Randy Harrison over the five weeks when "Buyer & Cellar" took a break.
When The Associated Press sat down with Urie, he revealed his evolving relationship with Babs, why he won't drink water onstage and the time he got paid to get stoned.
AP: Did you know "Buyer & Cellar" would touch a chord?
Urie: I had a feeling when I read it that, if I did it and I was able to make it work, everyone would at least be nice to me because of how challenging it was. At least people would be like, 'Good job, you!' At the very least, people would be, 'Aw. You learned all of that.'
AP: Which of Barbra Streisand's movies did you watch the most to get ready?
Urie: 'Meet the Fockers' is the movie that I watched the most. It's recent and because she's got that maternal thing going on that's sort of in our play. But she's also sexy in that and she's very sexual in that. So that movie was very helpful to me.
AP: Were you a Streisand fan before this?
Urie: I was an admirer. I wouldn't rush out to buy an album or see a movie, but I certainly enjoyed her and I liked a lot of her music. But since getting to know her — peripherally, or in my head — I have become a fan. She's just a tremendous artist. Not only does she have a crazy good voice and a musicality, but she's a great actor and a great filmmaker and remains an icon somehow when few are.
AP: What have you learned about yourself?
Urie: I've learned that I can speak for 100 minutes straight without taking a drink of water. I have water onstage if I need it. It's hidden onstage for me but I've never used it. I don't want to use it. The pace of the play is so tight that if I did take a drink it would shorten the play and I don't want people to be worried about me. You know, like, 'Oh, he needs a drink. I hope he's OK.'
AP: This play is about an out-of-work actor trying to make ends meet. What kinds of things did you do before you were famous?
Urie: Usually I would do extremely menial jobs like answering phones, transferring calls, sometimes even less. Sometimes just manning a desk. There was one job I had where I sat in a reception area for a law firm and I had to push a button to unlock the door whenever somebody came to the door. That was my only job. They didn't need me for anything except unlock the door. That was my only task: Push the button and unlock the door. And then imagine how you feel when you forget?
AP: That sounds grim. Anything else?
Urie: I did do one pretty ridiculous job for money. I did a medical research study for the effects of marijuana. I would go to Columbia University and get high. I would smoke and do these computer tests, like match the dots or something like that. It was a six-week study and I would go every week. Every week was a different level of marijuana. The first week I got stoned out of my mind and they just make sure you don't go crazy. The next week was weaker. It was varying degrees. The placebo was boring. It was a fun job and they paid really well. But you didn't get to keep any of it.