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Michael Urie (#110 of 3)

Interview: Michael Urie on Bringing Torch Song to the Second Stage Theater

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Interview: Michael Urie on Bringing Torch Song to the Second Stage Theater

Joan Marcus

Interview: Michael Urie on Bringing Torch Song to the Second Stage Theater

When we last chatted with Michael Urie, the genial and charismatic actor was enjoying the success of Buyer & Cellar at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Playing a fictional version of Barbara Streisand in that solo comedy, he now says, prepared him for his latest venture Off Broadway: the lead in Harvey Fierstein’s celebrated Torch Song Trilogy. Urie plays Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen in search of love and family life in New York City. Now re-titled Torch Song, the hit from the early 1980s is getting its first major revival at the Second Stage Theater (now through December 3). The production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, also stars Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving yet crushingly disapproving mother. We talked recently to Urie about the return of the seminal gay play and what it was like taking on the role originally made famous by the playwright Fierstein himself nearly four decades ago.

Hello, Gorgeous: An Interview with Buyer & Cellar‘s Michael Urie

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Hello, Gorgeous: An Interview with Buyer & Cellar’s Michael Urie
Hello, Gorgeous: An Interview with Buyer & Cellar’s Michael Urie

Last month, Michael Urie ended a sold-out run of Jonathan Tolins’s playful comedy Buyer & Cellar at Off Broadway’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, after winning several accolades, including a Drama Desk award for Best Solo Performance. He’s back for a return engagement, currently playing at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village.

In recent years, Urie has become a familiar face on and off Broadway (The Temperamentals, Angels in America, The Cherry Orchard, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), but he’s best known for his four-season stint as a fashion designer’s assistant on Ugly Betty. He recently directed his first feature film, He’s Way More Famous Than You, in which he also plays a character loosely based on himself. Later this month, he will be seen in a supporting role in the wacky comedy Petunia, starring Christine Lahti.

As the 32-year-old Texas-born actor describes it, his career path owes much to a series of happy accidents so far. “I grew up in front of the TV and, at age nine, I wanted to be a director,” he recalls. “But then I kept getting cast in plays in school so I thought, ’Maybe I am good at this.’ Then, somebody suggested that I audition for Juilliard, which I thought was crazy, but I decided I might as well try. At Juilliard I fell in love with the classics and when I graduated, I would have just been happy as a clam going from regional theater to regional theater playing the great parts in Shakespeare and Chekhov. I mean, I would kill to do Shakespeare in the Park, but I can’t get arrested there!” It was playing a classical role on stage that led to his big break on television. “I was doing a wacked-out version The Revenger’s Tragedy with the Red Bull Theater Company in a basement, where I looked like David Bowie and acted like Caligula.” His performance caught the eye of a casting director, who the actor learned was currently casting a TV pilot which had a small part for a character described only as “bitchy gay assistant.” Urie says, “I thought, ’I bet I can do that.’” It was meant to be a one-shot deal, as the character was supposed to be replaced every week since the designer, played by Vanessa Williams, would fire her assistant every week. “Vanessa and I got along immediately,” Urie reports. “I made this choice that I was obsessed with her character and I would emulate everything she did, which she loved. So we started playing together. And she would give me tips; if you stand close to me, you will be in this shot. And by the end of week they put me in the cast photo. And, of course, the rest is history.”

In Buyer & Cellar, with expert comic timing and devastating charm, Urie plays an out-of-work gay actor who’s hired to work for Barbra Streisand, in a basement shopping mall constructed in the superstar’s estate in Malibu. The only factual element of Jonathan Tolins’s whimsical fantasy is the actual existence of a subterranean street of shops that Streisand had built in her barn to display her collections, described in her lavishly produced 2010 coffee-table book My Passion for Design. Urie talked to us recently about what it’s like playing the fictitious store manager of Babs’s personal shopping mall.

Great Performances: The Temperamentals and Venus in Fur

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Great Performances: <em>The Temperamentals</em> and <em>Venus in Fur</em>
Great Performances: <em>The Temperamentals</em> and <em>Venus in Fur</em>

The Temperamentals could have easily been the title for The Boys in the Band, given that the latter’s party guests fit that description to a T, and it’s interesting that both works are sharing the same season. Both are about a group of men who, despite their differences, try to make sense of what it is to be gay in their society. Except that this play, sensitively written by Jon Marans (Old Wicked Songs), goes back all the way to the early ’50s, when gay wasn’t even a state of mind yet. Cue the advent of the Mattachine Society, a politically based platform begun by married, somewhat conservative Harry Hay (Thomas Jay Ryan), slowly embracing his homosexuality, and his Jewish émigré lover Rudi Gernreich (Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie), and their difficult efforts trying to get a group together to create a faction for men who felt disenfranchised (calling themselves “temperamental”), much like black Americans did in the same time period.