The Book of Liz by David and Amy Sedaris opened the other night at the Alley Theater, and man, is it weird! This cannot be an easy play to get right. It is part social commentary, part Monty Pythonesque comedy, and it requires masterful timing. But there is enough sincerity in the script to make the characters winning and real.
As the story goes, underappreciated Sister Liz (Madeleine Dee) of the Squeamish (a religious group not unlike the Amish) spends her days making special cheese balls for the town of Clusterhaven. Liz is so proud of her cheese balls and an unrevealed secret ingredient that when the stuffy Reverend Tollhouse demands that she give away her recipe, she is devastated.Dissatisfied with her life, she leaves the community to seek her fortune in the wide, wide world.Soon she finds herself on the side of the road dressed as Mr. Peanut waving cheerfully to passing cars. She meets a couple from “Ukrainia” and soon takes a job at a restaurant where everyone is an alcoholic and working on their twelve steps.
It was initially hard for me to grasp the tone of this piece. Part of the problem was the early scenes with the Squeamish. The performances seemed affected, as though the actors were trying to portray stuffy uptight religious folk rather than human beings with needs and wants.This made these scenes difficult to follow, as it didn’t seem that the characters were relating to one another in a truthful manner. There were also some timing issues in these early scenes and some of the jokes were lost.
The true standout of the production was Ms. Dee as Sister Liz Danderstock, whose performance was so genuine and winning that she strengthened every scene she was in. She plays Liz with levels of wistful longing, sweetness, and an innocence that borders on good-natured obliviousness. She really holds the play together.
There is one line in the play that stood out to me. When Liz comes to work at a restaurant, her manager at one point asks her to wear a short skirt or lose her job. She has to admit that she is Squeamish and can’t wear short skirts, just as many of the people in the real world can’t drink alcohol because they are alcoholics.It’s the same thing, she says. That seems to be the moral center of the play; there are some lines you just can’t cross, because in crossing them you lose yourself. This theme elevates the piece above its pure camp and silliness, and the ensemble succeeds in reaching these deeper levels of meaning.
Tim & Dair Mathistad
Katie & Chris Haulter
Kathy Todd Chaney
Angie Reed Garner