The Book of Liz
Consider the cheese ball. The ubiquitous attendee ofhousewarmings, potlucks and holiday festivities, it’s certainly not the star of any party. Yet even in its hum-drumness, it brings with it a certain solidity, a reliability we find comforting. Perhaps we take the cheese ball for granted.
In The Book of Liz, the cheese ball finally gets a starring role, thanks to its writers, “The Talent Family”—as they have dubbed themselves—of David and Amy Sedaris. As two of the sharpest comedic talents working today, the memoirist and actress brother-sister duo have long demonstrated the ability to see the mundane in unusual ways, and to satirize without coming across as mean-spirited.
In The Book of Liz—what may be the first ever “Amish picaresque”—we are introduced to the world of the Amish-like sect, the Squeamish, who live in the small community of Clusterhaven. Their community thrives thanks, in large part, to the successful sales of its cheese balls (“regular and smoky”), which are made by the loving hands of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, played with jittery enthusiasm by Mary Bennett.
But when Reverend Tollhouse (Michael Peters), the flagellating, tongue-flicking Squeamish leader, decides to trade quaintness for commerce and invites Brother Brightbee (Scott Dundas) from a neighboring sect to take over the making of the cheese balls, Sister Liz is bereft. She adamantly refuses Reverend Tollhouse’s mandate that she take on the chive-harvesting duties, using some adorable and hilarious Sedaris language that points a finger at pious, pithy phrasing: “I’ve not the temperament for chiving!” No matter—the decision is made. Feeling that she and her cheese balls have gone unappreciated for far too long, Liz decides to leave Clusterhaven.
Thus begins Liz’s journey in the outside world, which you might expect to be harsh and cruel to the Squeamish, but is instead delightfully weird and welcoming. She encounters bizarre characters, like the bickering Ukrainian couple Oxana (Patty Knutson) and Yvone (Dundas), and the recovering alcoholics who comprise the staff of a Pilgrim-themed restaurant, Plymouth Crock, where Liz and her Squeamish frock fit right in when she begins serving up its “Williamsburgers” and “I Hate the English muffins.”
Liz learns lots of important lessons about the outside world: How to be a successful roadside waver, the virtues of breakfast burritos, and the value of trite 12-step sayings like “One day at a time” and “Don’t quit before the miracle happens.”
She also learns about the real market value of her cheese balls, a commodity that clearly relies on her … special “talents.” When you learn what they are, you won’t wonder about the name Squeamish.
Following the original Sedaris script, the play’s 15 characters are brought to life by just four actors, all of whom are marvelous. Each has his or her own outstanding moments of insight or hilarity, but they also all understand the importance of nuance—a small gesture or look that adds something special.
Pure without being preachy, The Book of Liz manages to make sharp, astute observations without being accusatory, and, in true Sedaris fashion, manages to be sweet, yet not cheesy. Pardon the pun—that cheese ball metaphor works on so many levels!