What a friend she has in cheeses. Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, member of an obscure offshoot of the Amish called the "Squeamish," is the goddess with gouda in Amy and David Sedaris' lactose-irreverent one-act comedy The Book of Liz. Bootstraps Comedy Theater is putting on this curds-and-way-funny little play right now at the Bath House Cultural Center, proving that everything really does go better with cheddar, even live theater.
Cheese serves as centerpiece, symbol and metaphor in this comic parable about a devout woman (played by the kittenish Arianna Movassagh) who's a whiz at one thing: making cheeseballs. It's the sale of Sister Elizabeth's exquisite edibles—yummy things blended with chives, walnuts and one special secret ingredient—that keeps the Clusterhaven Squeamish of Quilt County in business. So when the chief elder, a humorless Luddite named the Reverend Tollhouse (Randy Pearlman), orders Elizabeth to sever ties with her non-religious outside distributor, Ms. Foxley (Lisa Hassler), and turn over her beloved recipes to the prickly Brother Nathaniel (Jeremy Whiteker), she rebels and runs away.
The rest of the play, a brisk 87 minutes with no intermission, follows Sister Elizabeth's adventures in the outside world, where she's baffled by such modern marvels as the breakfast burrito. A chance meeting with a Ukrainian émigré in a Mr. Peanut costume (Hassler again) leads Liz to a job slinging hash at an Amish-themed tourist cafe (she's already wearing the waitress uniform of long black dress, white apron and white bonnet). Her co-workers there are all gay AA adherents who gossip like fishwives and speak exclusively in recovery jargon. One day at a time, Liz adapts, but, like Dorothy escaping Oz, she eventually realizes that finding true happiness means going back home. Not, however, before learning a little something about who she is and why it is that she can't stop sweating. Wait, what?
Uncleanliness is next to oddness in a lot of the Sedarises' work. A running theme in this play is the problem of excessive perspiration (Liz shvitzes so heavily, she's nicknamed "Soak-ahontas"), and there are plenty of poo jokes dropped here and there. But the sophomoric silliness also is tempered with wonderfully Sedarian turns of phrase. Liz describes Brother Tollhouse as "born with a wooden spoon in his mouth." The order she hollers at the kitchen in the fake-Amish diner is for "We Hate the English Muffins."
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The talented Sedaris sibs also seem to have written this in gentler temperament than we're used to from either of them. Stardom for David, now 50, arose from his caustic essays delivered on public radio (where his "Santaland Diaries" premiered in 1992), and from stinging little stories published in The New Yorker and in best-selling collections, including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. Amy, 46, created and starred in Strangers With Candy, the subversive Comedy Central TV series and subsequent movie spin-off chronicling a slatternly ex-con's sad attempt to finish high school as one of the popular kids.
In The Book of Liz, the writers are at their wickedest in satirizing starchy self-righteousness, but at the end they go slightly mushy with a sweet little message about self-acceptance. It's their version of a "very special episode" perhaps—just with more gay characters and a live poodle named Mrs. Drysdale dressed up in pink sunglasses.
For hard-core Sedaris fans, the inclusion of the cheeseballs is the clue that Amy might have had more input on Liz than her big brother. In appearances on Late Show With David Letterman, she has talked about supplementing her showbiz income by whipping up homemade cheeseballs and cupcakes and selling them to gourmet stores in Greenwich Village and SoHo. She's also a veteran waitress, keeping shifts at a café in the Bowery even when she was shooting Strangers With Candy.
Bootstraps Comedy Theater and the Sedarii are a perfect fit. Director Matt Lyle and his cast of five (six counting the adorable pooch) get the deal about making comedy funnier by not playing too hard for the laughs. They let it sneak up on the audience a little, then, vavoom, everyone's in stitches.
This is a tight production done on little money but with a lot of snazz. Movassagh brings a quiet sincerity to her Sister Elizabeth, and she clicks with the play's quick timing. Hassler makes each of the half-dozen characters she plays (including Mr. Peanut) physically and vocally discrete. Whiteker's best character is Donny, the wrist-flapping waiter just out of rehab.
This is a fun one. But with all that talk of cheeseballs, they really ought to sell them at the concession table afterward for an enjoyable post-play nosh. As Amy Sedaris knows, it's good to hawk a little something extra on the side. Oh, well. Queso sera, sera.
The title, The True Story of the Incarceration of Little Egypt, now onstage at the 60-seat Theatre Too (downstairs below Theatre Three in the Quadrangle), is almost longer than the play. That's an exaggeration but not a complaint. This trend of intermission-less one-acts shorter than 90 minutes is starting to catch on, and it's something more theaters should heed. Enough with the three-hour, two-break epics that test the bladder and strain the sacrum. Get in, get entertained, get out and get home before Jon Stewart comes on.
Little Egypt was still a mite shaky at the preview performance reviewed, but it shows real potential as a fine one-character vehicle for veteran comic actress Ronnie Claire Edwards, who also wrote the script. For about 80 minutes, Edwards, familiar to TV rerun watchers for recurring roles on The Waltons and Designing Women, holds sway telling the "true story" of a woman about to be released after serving a stretch for bank robbery.
Packing up the photos and crocheted afghans that clutter her cell at the women's prison at Gatesville, "the oldest female incarceree in the state of Texas" recounts the numerous scams and swindles she carried off as a career carny and con artist. "Hangin' paper, Ponzi, numbers" were her specialties. She boasts to an unseen scrum of reporters that she also excelled at "telepathin'" and dancing the tango in fancy nightclubs.
Edwards the actress underplays all of it, working her rich voice down to the deepest notes. And even when she's going up on the very lines she wrote, she keeps a firm grip on the audience's attention. Edwards the playwright knows the satisfying appeal of the colorful Southern idiom. Her play, broken up into episodic yarns, earns the biggest laughs with a series of crazy stories about animals Little Egypt has known and despised. These involve albino chinchillas with sex problems and coyotes bred with poodles. "Ugly?" Little Egypt says of the hybrid pups. "They could turn a funeral procession up an alley."
Then there's the tale of the monkey she won in a game of five-card stud with an animal control officer, "thereby saving the monkey from the gallows." The creature was "scary-bright," she says, and turned out to be a well-trained jewel thief. "He could tell the difference between a $5 watch and an Elgin."
Anyone who's seen a well-acted solo show will ever after know the difference between cheap jack and a stylish piece of goods. Little Egypt is the latter, certainly scads better than Camilla Carr's dreadful All About Bette: An Evening With Bette Davis, which played in the tiny Theatre Too a year ago. Something about Little Egypt feels like a special event, like it's a work-in-progress command performance by a writer-actress doing this theater a big favor by being there. When the prison gates clang open at the end of the show, it feels as if the star and her wonderful stories are destined to make it on a bigger stage.
The second of this summer's Broadway musical road shows has arrived at Fair Park. It's called Wonderful Town. Don't let the title fool you.
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