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Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Buyer & Cellar
Bucks County Playhouse
Review by Cameron Kelsall | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's recent review of Working

Nick Cearley
Photo by Daniel T. Gramkee
Barbra Streisand made her New York stage debut while still in high school; she was an international celebrity before she could vote. In the six intervening decades, she has meticulously cultivated her public image while carefully controlling the flow of information about her personal life. More than almost any star you can think of, there is the sense that we see what Barbra wants us to see, with each move carefully choreographed. So, perhaps the greatest pleasure of Jonathan Tolins' popular, oft-performed Buyer & Cellar—,currently receiving a first-rate production at Bucks County Playhouse, directed by Sarna Lapine and starring Nick Cearley—is that it allows the audience to feel that we are seeing Barbra at her most vulnerable and real, even if that in itself is fiction.

And make no mistake: Tolins wastes no time informing his audience that what they are about to see is a work of his imagination. Taking his inspiration from "My Passion for Design," a delightfully over-the-top coffee table book published by Streisand in 2010, Tolins imagines that the diva herself hires an out-of-work actor named Alex More to work as shopkeeper in the ornate row of old-timey stores she has constructed in the basement of her palatial Malibu estate. Babs keeps her treasures in this mall of sorts, and she likes to pretend she's shopping, but it's less fun when she does it alone. "The premise is preposterous," Alex tells us at the top of the show. "What I'm going to tell you could not possibly have happened with a person as famous, talented and litigious as Barbra Streisand."

Yet it's hard not to long for it to be true. This is at least partially thanks to Cearley, who embodies the entire cast of characters with virtuosic ease. His Alex is equal measures confidence and anxiety, whereas his Barbra skillfully resists the urge to warm to her new employee—until she doesn't. The cast also includes James Brolin, whom Cearley gives just the right amount of gravitas; Alex's screenwriter boyfriend Barry, who suffers from a lethal case of professional jealousy; and Barbra's house manager Sharon, imbued with a delicious dose of world-weariness. With Streisand, there is always the option to go over the top; after all, what respectable drag queen doesn't have Babs in her repertoire? But Cearley signifies changes in character through a vocal inflection here, a shift in posture there. His choices are subtle but noticeable, like a soup seasoned with just the right amount of salt.

Tolins' talents as a writer provide the piece's other undeniable triumph. The text is sharp as a tack and often irrepressibly funny, but Tolins never sacrifices poignancy or genuine feeling for a cheap laugh. He does not present Alex as a fawning queen before a diva idol, and Barbra doesn't slip into caricature. These are real people in an unreal situation—literally and figuratively—and we get to see them navigate that world in surprising, often touching ways. Perhaps the strongest element of the play is Tolins' ability to convey the sensitive aspects of Barbra's personality without sacrificing her strength or self-preservation.

This is perhaps most evident in a sad story Babs tells Alex about her Brooklyn childhood, which was devoid of physical affection and material comforts. Lacking dolls to play with, she turned a hot water bottle—and Cearley's pronunciation here is worth the price of admission alone—into her most intimate friend; a kindly neighbor took pity on her and knit the water bottle a hat and sweater. Tolins' writing is pinpoint-precise, and Cearley captures the story from three phenomenal angles: Barbra's emotional yet controlled recollection; Alex's empathetic response; and the condescending tone Barry takes when he informs Alex that she's been telling that story for fifty years. As with everything in Barbra's life, the revelation she shares with Alex is scrupulously crafted; yet Alex longs for it to be genuine—and so do we.

Lapine's brisk production serves the tonal changes in both the play's text and Cearley's performance. The nearly two-hour, intermissionless performance whirs by. Chick Shimizu provides creative projections that complement the outsized world Alex suddenly finds himself inhabiting, and Gina Scherr's evocative lighting is almost a second—or should I say sixth?—character.

Buyer & Cellar is the final production of the Bucks County Playhouse 2016 season; it may also be the finest assumption they've undertaken since reopening four years ago. Anyone who sees it should be excited for what this company has in store.

Buyer & Cellar continues at Bucks County Playhouse (70 S. Main Street, New Hope, PA) through Saturday, November 26, 2016. Tickets ($35-69) can be purchased online at or by calling 215-862-2121.

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