Michael Urie in 'Buyer & Cellar'

Michael Urie in 'Buyer & Cellar' (April 29, 2014)

He may play a struggling actor in "Buyer & Cellar," but Michael Urie is anything but. The 33-year-old Texas native and Juilliard graduate, who rose to fame in "Ugly Betty" as Marc St. James, the boot-licking assistant to the show's diva-villain, Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa Williams), was originally only cast for the pilot. The script called for Slater to hire and fire a new assistant every week, but Urie made such an impression that he was elevated to a co-starring role.

And he's recently won Drama Desk and Clarence Derwent Awards for "Buyer & Cellar," the one-man comedy by New York playwright Jonathan Tolins about an imaginary encounter between Barbra Streisand and a fictional, out-of-work actor hired to manage a street of quaint "shoppes" in a faux mall that Streisand actually created in the lower level of her Malibu home to showcase personal treasures including a doll collection, vintage costumes and a frozen yogurt maker.

After more than 360 performances in New York—none of which, to his knowledge, included Streisand in the audience—Urie comes out of the cellar and hits the road to kick off a national tour in Chicago. (Another actor continues the role in the New York production.) We called him to find out more about the play, his time on "Ugly Betty" and his lucky breaks in both shows.

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"Buyer & Cellar"
Go: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through June 15 at Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Tickets: $35-$75. 800-775-2000; broadwayinchicago.com

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What to expect from the show: "It is a totally fabricated story about a completely made-up guy who gets a job working in the absolutely, 100-percent real shopping mall that Barbra Streisand built in her basement. She does keep her collectibles there. And in the play, Jonathan Tolins, the brilliant mind behind "Buyer & Cellar," imagined that a struggling actor gets hired to work down there and tends to the shops—and his one customer." [Laughs.]

How he landed the role: "I knew Jon socially through showbiz and I'd done some readings of a play of his. We ended up working together on a TV show called 'Partners,' a sitcom out in L.A. We were both East Coasters transplanted to L.A. and so we hung out a lot. We became good friends and he sent me the script and I loved it. And then, after 'Partners' got cancelled, the play was getting a lot of attention and heat from theaters. And the Rattlestick [Playwrights] Theater, which is a wonderful Off-Off-Broadway company, picked it up." (After a sold-out run, the play moved to the Barrow Street Theatre.)

The most challenging aspects of performing this show: "It can be terrifying. There are nights when I have forgotten my line and I have no idea what I'm going to say. [Laughs.] Usually I just open my mouth and the right line comes out, thank God. But really, the scariest part is right before I go out. Because it's a lot; it's exhausting—it's 95 minutes without stopping. I never leave the stage; I don't even turn upstage. It's a terrifying prospect to go out there on your own and create all of the energy for the show. There are no other actors; there's no orchestra. There are music cues and there's lighting and there's some projection, but I initiate everything."

What music—besides Barbra's—he listens to: "Lately, I've been pretty obsessed with a Pandora station—it's [laughs] Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. It's probably not what you expected. [Laughs.] But when I'm listening to music, I'm usually working on something or I'm on the computer sending emails and the energy and the tone of that kind of music is right up my alley. Of course I do love Barbra and I will pop her in from time to time."

He honored Barbra via Twitter on her birthday April 24, but wishes he'd commemorated this way: "If I'd really been smart I'd have had some nice coffee froyo, cause that's her favorite. Or coffee-flavored cake."

How he parlayed a guest spot on the "Ugly Betty" pilot into a co-starring series-long role: "Bribery. [Laughs.] Actually, I owe that to Vanessa Williams. While we were shooting the pilot, all my scenes were with her and we got along immediately and famously. She kept giving me tips and saying things like, 'You know, if you stand next to me, you'll be in this shot.' And of course she knows that my character was a sycophant and so I was mimicking her behind her [back, in the shots]. And when she realized I was doing that, she loved it. And she said, 'What else can I do that you'll do?'" And by the end of it, I was in more shots, I was doing fun things, we were working together. And she even threw me some lines. She was like, 'I don't want to say this one. You say this one and then I'll say the next one.' By the end of the pilot, they actually put me in the cast photo. They saw that the two of us created something special together and they ran with it."

Did he keep any of his fashionista outfits from the show? "Keep or steal? [Laughs.] There were things that ended up being mine. All the wardrobe was tailored within an inch of its life, so there were things that no one else could possibly wear. Or at least that's what I tell myself. [Laughs.] So yeah, I made off with some things. I certainly don't dress like Marc did, but there were some pieces that were too good to pass up."

How his "Ugly Betty" wardrobe compares to his everyday wear: "I don't think it would compare. [Laughs.] That wardrobe was so over the top—I mean, wonderful, brilliant, I can't believe the costume designers never won an Emmy; it's a crime, really. I loved wearing all that stuff, but it wasn't [pause] comfortable. Fashion isn't comfortable as a rule, and I dress comfortably."

His Chicago free-time plans: "I want to see more theater!" (Urie attended—and loved—the Second City mainstage show during a quick pre-show publicity trip to Chicago in April.) "I've always wanted to see something at Steppenwolf and the Goodman and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And I want to take one of the architecture tours. They sound amazing. And that was what really blew me away being in Chicago. The buildings are gorgeous! And the city planning is just—I can't imagine anything better. It's so beautiful and you can really see things. New York is beautiful, but really only from New Jersey. [Laughs.] When you're in the middle of it, it's fun and it's exciting, but there are not views unless you're in a tall building. But Chicago really has it figured out."

Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. redeye@tribune.com | @redeyechicago