Say what you will about Barbra Streisand – whether you love her massive talent or ego, or not, you have to admit there’s no one else like her. And few people can say that with as much authority as Alex More, a struggling actor who ends up working for Streisand in a rather unusual capacity.
Alex is the sole character onstage in Buyer & Cellar, Jonathan Tolins’ very funny comedy now playing at Bucks County Playhouse. It’s a smart and snappy examination of the nature of celebrity, viewed from both the star’s point of view and the fan’s.
Tolins wrote the play after learning about one of Streisand’s most peculiar eccentricities: After spending decades collecting all sorts of items – everything from antiques to dolls to her onstage costumes – the star decided to store and display them in a series of simulated shops in her basement. It’s “very elegant for a basement mall,” Alex declares after he begins working there. It’s an example, he says, of “relentless good taste combined with the total lack of financial restraint.”
When Barbra herself shows up in this mini-mall – she’s the only customer, after all – Alex is immediately star-struck (“It’s like she’s lit from within”). But the two strike up a playful rapport, and before long she begins confiding her hopes, dreams and insecurities to Alex. Most of her stories seem to revolve around what she perceives as her deprived childhood: “We didn’t have cashmere in Brooklyn,” she says with a catch in her throat.
Alex is thrilled to have become friends with one of the world’s biggest stars – but are they really friends? Alex tells his boyfriend Barry about his intimate conversations with Streisand, but Barry is not impressed. Barry is obsessed with Barbra, but he’s also convinced that her seeming concern for Alex is all an act. Who should Alex believe?
Tolins’ script is full of witty jokes and arch observations. He shows keen insight into Streisand’s work, giving a perceptive analysis of her movie The Mirror Has Two Faces. There are also nods to other gay touchstones like Judy Garland and Joan Crawford. Tolins’ only major over-indulgence is including several jokes about the Los Angeles theatre scene that few outside that scene are likely to understand.
But Buyer & Cellar isn’t just a bunch of one-liners. Alex is struggling to find his place in the world – something that makes him feel significant – and finds that his boyfriend and his idol fill different needs for him. His conflict over which path to take gives the play some unexpected depth.
Nick Cearley is terrific as Alex, moving back and forth between nonchalant indifference and gushing enthusiasm. He maintains a calm, reasonably toned voice in his narration, never getting frantic. But sometimes his Alex can’t control his excitement. At one point he sits down on the set’s sole chair, curling one leg up and sitting on it; then he leaps up, then returns to the previous position, then stands again – all in the space of a few seconds. He may claim to be “not that big a Barbra Queen,” but his actions betray his true feelings.
Cearley also plays everyone Alex comes in contact with, slipping adroitly into roles like Alex’s boyfriend Barry and Barbra’s husband James Brolin. And yes, he plays Streisand too – but Cearley doesn’t really do an impression of her. Instead, through a series of head movements and dramatic pauses, he suggests the essence of the star. It’s a funny and insightful performance, and under Sarna Lapine’s gently-paced direction it avoids slipping into ridiculousness.
Chika Shimizu designed both the set – a modest collection of furniture – and the projections that appear on the back wall. Those projections are a good match for the script’s genial wit, using whimsical artwork that imagines the underground mall as a stylish place for Streisand to escape her hordes of devoted fans.
Of course, as long as Alex is working there, there’s one fan she can’t escape.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.