10 Qs: Barrett Foa, Buyer & Cellar's Latest Star, On Stepping Into Michael Urie's Shoes
By Jerry Portwood
Last summer, Michael Urie took the Off-Broadway theater scene by storm in the one-man show Buyer & Cellar, about an out-of-work actor who ends up acting as make-believe sales clerk in Barbra Streisand's basement curio shoppe located in her Malibu home. After wowing audiences and winning multiple awards, Urie left to take the show on the road (he's currently in Chicago). Christopher J. Hanke replaced him in the show, and now it's time for the third actor to officially play Alex, Babs, and the other characters in the crowd-pleasing comedy by Jonathan Tolins. Barrett Foa, known to many for his Broadway roles and current gig on NCIS: Los Angeles, took over the part this week. Ahead of his debut, we caught up with him as he was prepping for the big change.
"It’s daunting, but it’s a great challenge," Foa explains. "I think it's going to be kind of a lonely existence, being the only person. Visiting Michael backstage, I kind of realized that, like, 'Oh, this is your dressing room and no one else’s in here?' You can’t be like, “Hey! You guys excited for the show tonight?' Nope. It’s just me. So I think there’s going to be a challenge in doing that eight times a week, and getting the moxy up every night. But I’m trying to be self-reliant in that way."
We also found out what Foa's parents thought of the show when they saw it with Michael Urie, why Avenue Q was more difficult than Mamma Mia!, and why he'd rather kill Barbra than marry her—if he had the chance.
Out: So now that you’re taking over in Buyer & Cellar, did you ever get a chance to see Michael Urie in it?
Barrett Foa: Yeah, I actually saw him do it twice. I think I saw the last performance [at Rattlestick Theater, the original location], and it was Mother’s Day. I was actually with my mom and dad and—it’s funny because we were actually doing a double header—then we went to see another one-person play about Barbra Streisand, the Sue Mengers play. They were both kind of talks of the season: One was Downtown, an intimate show, and the other one was a big-ticket item, really expensive tickets, going to see Bette Midler on Broadway. No offense to Bette Midler, but I really enjoyed my tiny Downtown experience.
How did your parents react to the show?
I remember when we were getting up after the bows, my dad was like, “Urie wasn’t singing a wrong note in that show.” It was funny, it was so funny but it was also so moving. But I was thinking, Oh, it kind of has a lot of inside jokes about Barbra Streisand. It kind of has a queer bent. Is my father gonna like this, and it’s Mother’s Day, is it appropriate? The themes—celebrity and loneliness and friendship—he was just really taken by it, as was I. Then I saw it again, in January. Then that was at the Barrow [Street Theatre]. I wanted to see it in that space, and I saw that with my brother actually.
I’ve also seen Hanke do it, and he’s great; I just love the whole pedigree of it. We’ve all known each other for years; we’re all kind of the same Broadway community. I just love that everyone’s trading roles.
What do you think it’s going to be like when the show makes it to L.A.?
Yeah, I think we’re kind of switching coasts. When I’m going to be in New York, Michael’s going to be in L.A. It’s going to be different certainly just because the Taper is a bigger venue. What is it, 800 seats? So, you know, a one-person show, in that space, you’re going to have your back to someone at some point. At Barrow Street, I think the stage is higher than the seats. You’re looking down at the audience, it’s going to be kind of the opposite [in Los Angeles].
Obviously, it’s your hiatus, you could go off and have fun in Thailand, instead you’re coming to work your ass off. It’s a hard show, it’s a lot of energy that goes into it every day. So what is that decision all about?
Not to mention the prep work, I’ve been trying to cram this 60-page monologue in my head since January, so there was definitely a struggle that I had. Is this what I want to be doing with, not only with my summer, but also just the prep work from January to May just getting it in there? So I think I’m a little bit of a masochist that way, but also, I just, I really like to. It’s something, that live connection with the audience, it is just something that I’ve been missing a lot since working in Hollywood. It’s great to connect with so many people in a show like NCIS: Los Angeles, the No. 2 drama on television for five years straight. It’s still amazing, the millions of people that I get to reach, but it doesn’t, somehow, there’s just not that personal connection.
You know, I’d rather have an experience with 200 people a night and really get like a more intimate kind of relationship going with audience and actor. And that’s just valuable to me, that connection and it makes me grounded and I just really like the challenge, you know?
You’ve done a lot of theater, including Mamma Mia!, which opened opened a month after September 11.
That was a fun show, partly because we were the fifth company of that show, so it wasn’t like, “Oh, are we going to be a hit? ABBA? What’s this show like?” We knew it was going to work, so it kind of took that pressure off since we ended up with something that we knew was going to be a hit, so it was thrilling. Also, we got a pass from the press because they said, "New York needs us now." We all needed to host this big cupcake of a musical, and it’s just actually pretty lovely.
But, in terms of challenges, you know, Avenue Q, I was the big guinea pig with that show. I was the first non-puppeteer in that building. It’s an amazing show, but there was a lot of work that had to be done. To catch up with people who have been doing puppets and have been on Sesame Street for 15 years, and I’m this newbie who has this thing on my hand. It was a little bit of a challenge to fit into that community. Eventually they embraced me, but you know, you’ve got to work hard. You just kind of got to put the work in and you reap the benefits manyfold.
Back to this show: You have to play so many different roles. Not only are you Alex, but you’re five other people, including Barbra Streisand. What goes into that? Do you do any research to play the characters?
Oh my god, there’s so much work to be done! And it’s so much fun. Like Alex in the show, I wasn’t “that big of a Barbara queen.” I’m like, “Ah, I don’t know, I guess I’ve seen like a movie here and there,” but for this role, I think I kind of need to see Yentl. I need to see her directorial debut, I need to revisit The Mirror Has Two Faces, because there’s a huge monologue about it. There are so many references in this movie, to new Hollywood, Old Hollywood, and just the Barbra Streisand interviews that I’ve seen, the kind of YouTube spirals that I’ve been down, Oprah interviews, Larry King interviews, her interview with Mike Wallace where she cried.
I’m just devouring it all. I wanna get all those Barbra-isms in my face and in my fingers and in my whole body. And it’s so fun to really embody her, because you have to make it clear for the audience, “Now I’m Alex, and now I’m Barbra.” So what is that? How can I shift my body slightly and somewhat subtly so that we’re still telling the story, but you know who I am, who’s saying what. So that is just so much fun, to do all the research. I’m a musical theater total nerd. I went to the University of Michigan. Part of Michigan’s philosophy is do your research.
Do you know about what costume you’re wearing? The same shirt with the green pocket and the red pants?
I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the T-shirt situation. I don’t know how comfortable I am with that. I just wore T-shirts so much and then, I don’t know, since I’ve been in LA, I’ve kind of graduated from that. I like a nice button-up shirt, like a J. Crew kind of. Maybe I’m a little bit more preppy now or something. I think those red maroon pants are going to show up.
One of the things is this character is a guy who has never gotten a big break. You’ve kind of gone from one thing to the next, never struggling to find a gig.
Sure, knock on wood, it’s great. But I think, you can channel that inner-longing: “I’m not good enough, or no one wants me for the right project that I want to do.” You know, whatever it is. And I certainly have enough friends who are out of work that I can draw from.
Actually, I have a friend who’s a mayor of Toontown in Disneyland. I even YouTubed that too, to be like, What does the Mayor of Toontown do? I was like, OK, now I really understand what Alex does at Disneyland. It’s intense, it’s something that I never had to do, thank god.
OK, so now to prepare you for your Andy Cohen moment. If we were to play Fuck, Marry, Kill with Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and Patti LuPone, which one would you fuck marry or kill?
[Sighs] OK. I think I would be, well let me just say it out loud and see how it lands. I adore these three women so much, but also, want to kill them all at different moments in my life. Is that weird? Because I love them all so much, but they also annoy me so much, and that’s why I love them.
It sounds like you would fuck all of them, kill all of them, and then marry all of them.
Hopefully not in that order.
Buyer & Cellar is currently playing at Barrow Street Theatre in NYC for an open-ended run.