‘Buyer and Cellar” falls in the line of “Fully Committed,” “Full Gallop,” “Murder for Two,” and similar pieces that find vogue by having one actor play myriad characters and trading on a combination of popular culture, name-dropping, and New York humor with a gay tinge.
It’s not as sharp as “Gallop,” as varied or gossipy as “Committed,” or as frenetic as “Murder,” but when it sticks to its main hook, an out-of-work actor, recently fired from Disneyland, working in Barbra Streisand’s basement and communing with the star, it is entertaining. And it gives actor Nick Cearley, playing the constantly tested employee and the diva herself at Bucks County Playhouse, frequent chances to impress and delight his New Hope audience.
Jonathan Tolins, it’s said, was inspired to write “Buyer and Cellar” after reading Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book, “My Passion for Design,” which depicts rooms she decorated in her Malibu Xanadu, discovered and revealed by Tolins to look very much like the set for the 1950 Judy Garland movie “Summer Stock.”
In her narrative Streisand explains her rationale for each room and speaks of the fun she had conceiving and realizing a basement that stores various treasures, collectibles, garments, and practical items on a subterranean Main Street, divided into stores and including frozen yogurt and popcorn machines.
Streisand describes her idea, but it’s Tolins’ imagination that fills in the details. It is he who plants an employee assigned to the shopping/storage area and charged with dusting and maintaining its inventory while, when the occasion arises, serving its exclusive customer who sometimes gets the urge to visit and shop.
Tolins’ dialogue is a little more self-conscious and self-congratulatory than it is witty for most of the show, but you go with it because, though everything that happens in “Buyer and Cellar” is fictional, it has traces of being juicy, and Cearley keeps you attentive, even when passages seem trite or self-serving.
Tolins leaves no doubt he made up the bulk of “Buyer and Cellar.” The first eight minutes of the show almost kill it with effusive disclaimers and pleas not to take anything one sees seriously. This opening breaks the fourth wall too brashly, and the humor in it seemed canned and formulated to sound witty when it borders more on party talk. You want to scream, “OK, we get it,” as Cearley musters all of his charm to get us to like this character endlessly inveighing us not to believe anything we see.
The tough slogging ends once the main character, Alex More — a descendent of the Renaissance writer and statesman at the center of the 1966 play “A Man for All Seasons,” Sir Thomas More, and an actor recently dismissed from Disneyland for berating a brat who called him a loser for working as a costumed figure there — enters the Streisand manse.
Real or not — and I, like Tolins, remind you to stress the “not” — the idea behind Babs’s basement fascinates us. We enjoy hearing about the different shops, how they’re arranged, and how the private mall is so tastefully appointed and geared to fulfill a creative woman’s fantasy. We get into punctuating descriptions of the whir of the yogurt machine and the clacking of the popcorn maker. We like the thought the fictional Streisand put into her personal space and the caprice of having an employee to tend it.
Cearley begins to endear himself to us in these passages. We are on a journey of discovery with him, and he is telling us something that seems deliciously secret. He and Tolins are also crafty at making us anticipate the eventual, de rigueur arrival of the star. The writing also becomes more personal and conversational. Alex continues to have a tone of sarcasm, but his comments and observations are less labored and, more blessedly, less primed to wow us with humor of a kind that previously overshot its mark.
The difference is not only an increase of celebrity-oriented dish but a gratifying uptick of warmth. The best segments of “Buyer and Cellar” are those that take place in Streisand’s basement and feature the diva entering, first as a customer who comes to the doll shop, introduces herself as Sadie, and haggles, unsuccessfully, over the price of one of the more unusual dolls.
Not only does Cearley impress by gently suggesting Streisand through subtle use of trademark mannerisms and a Mae West cast to her quiet, but recognizable, speaking voice, but he creates plausible, believable exchanges between a diva and someone she can fire at a whim. The cat-and-mouse between star and underling is well-conceived by Tolins and well-performed, with minimal histrionics, by Cearley.
Things especially cook during scenes of negotiation and passages in which Alex and Barbra are absorbed in a possible film remake of “Gypsy,” during which the late Arthur Laurents is invoked. (Such a production has been talked about for years and is allegedly in the works.)
Tolins works to infuse drama by showing scenes of Alex’s personal life, especially his relationship with his boyfriend, a wannabe screenwriter who wouldn’t mind getting in on some of the “Gypsy” action. As in the early set-up scenes, sequences between Alex and his lover seem heavy-handed and forced.
The wrinkle is the boyfriend is a tad jealous of Streisand and worries that Alex is mistaking his employer for a friend. Tolins’ instinct is right, both in how to change some pace and provide some conflict, but he makes the boyfriend so unattractive and such a downer, you can’t wait for domestic scenes to end and for Alex to get back to Babs and the shops. You see enough of the dynamic between star and servant there.
The boyfriend is too sour and predictably dubious for “Buyer’s” own good. Instead of providing texture, he becomes an annoyance. Tolins’ ending cloys a bit because of that.
In general, the BCP production of “Buyer and Cellar” provides a good time. Cearley holds the stage and is a savvy enough entertainer to keep you interested during less interesting parts. Chika Shimizu’s set and projection designs blend fantasy and reality in convincing, tone-establishing ways, enhanced by Gina Scherr’s lighting. Sarna Lapine sets a fine, engaging pace as the director.
Buyer and Cellar, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Saturday, November 26, Tuesday through Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. No show on Thanksgiving day. $35 to $69. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.