North Carolina loves the Sedaris family—Amy and David, especially. Together the sibling duo wrote “The Book Of Liz” under the name The Talent Family. It is currently on stage at TheatreNOW (directed by Phill Antonino), and just in time, nonetheless, for David’s reading last Monday at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium. David has a relatively new book out, “Calypso,” and of course Amy can be seen on TV screens across America, demonstrating ways to confound family and friends with cooking and crafts in “At Home With Amy Sedaris.”
In “The Book of Liz” audiences are welcome to the land of the Squeamish—a plain-clothes dressed society of old-world faith that lives sequestered from the evils of modernity. At Clusterhaven—the only major source of outside income the Squeamish still have—comes from handcrafted cheeseballs made by Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (Emily Gomez). Life isn’t easy for the Squeamish, but Sister Elizabeth strives to do her part.
Reverend Tollhouse (Jay Zadeh), their leader, isn’t the best at appreciating others, especially women. All poor Elizabeth wants is a little acknowledgment. Enter Brother Brightbee (Devin DiMattia), the adored new arrival from another Squeamish community that has recently dissolved. Rev. Tollhouse thinks Brother Brightbee is just about the greatest thing on earth, after God of course.
Though the dialogue written for Zadeh is as judgmental and unbending as expected of the sardonic Sedarises, it is really his body language that communicates so much. Up until the last scene, every time Zadeh is on stage with anyone other than Brother Brightbee (i.e. any female), he is turning his back or latterly giving the “cold shoulder.” Eye contact isn’t accompanied by a reprimand or an order. One of his lines is about the dangers of “casual glancing,” and it shows his dedication to the subtleties of character work.
DiMattia’s Brother Brightbee is a shining example of white male privilege in action: “I can do anything I want, and I can do it better than anyone else, and I surely don’t need to ask for instruction or help. Everyone will love me for it, and if I encounter any push back, all I have to do is flash my smile as I steamroll right over whoever’s life I might be destroying.” DiMattia shines and glows in the role, which is really weird for anyone who actually knows how kind and thoughtful he is in real life.
As if being told one’s worth is beyond miniscule concern—not even worth stepping upon, even—Sister Elizabeth gets an earful of her inadequacies from Sister Constance Butterworth (Linda Markas). Gossip, snoop and all around holier-than-thou, Sister Constance is a bit much, but in many ways she is actually part of the glue that holds their little community together. For all her good points, she really is the type of person to avoid at all costs. Markas infuses her with pure sanctimony. When she asks in Act 2, “Who do you want me to judge?”, I actually laughed so hard I spit out a mouthful of food. The guy across from me made eye contact and said, “I know, right?” Markas seriously sells it.
In spite of having spent all her life in an isolated religious community, Sister Elizabeth runs away from home. Thankfully, she meets up with friendly Cockney Ukrainians, Oxana (Melissa Randall) and Yvonne (Jay Zadeh). Considering she is completely naive about all aspects of modern life, thank heavens she is befriended by decent people. Somehow they help her get a job at a nearby restaurant, staffed almost entirely by recovering alcoholics. The manager, Duncan (DiMattia), communicates almost entirely through AA clichés; he assumes Elizabeth’s profuse sweating is part of her detox from booze.
Yeah: the sweating. It is a thing—a big thing for Sister Elizabeth. Actually, she is so good at working in the restaurant, Duncan proposes her for a manager’s slot—but on the condition she have an operation to correct excessive sweating. He sends her to his doctor (Jen Ingulli), who has been sober for eight months. Sister Elizabeth has a medical exam far more like a visit with a self-obsessed friend who never evolved beyond high school. Ingulli even pulls out her phone and starts scrolling through pictures while Sister Elizabeth is discussing her concerns about the procedure.
Somehow in spite of all the disregard, Gomez manages to grow a backbone for Liz before our eyes. In the beginning of the show, she whines, wheedles and is desperate for attention. By the end, she has a strong back, firm voice and certainty of purpose. Despite how beautiful Gomez is, she became dowdy and sweaty, dressed in a cassock-like drab gown that makes my mother’s drapes look fashionable, but also spends the first third of the show with a permanent down turn to her lips that makes one wonder if she got the memo on how to smile wrong. As Sister Elizabeth slowly finds happiness, acceptance and a sense of purpose, all of it changes.
It really is a lovely journey of transformation to witness—albeit one surrounded by hilarity. Gomez makes believable and real as someone for whom the audience can root. Though everyone else gets to have a zany time playing multiple characters (Gomez does have a “walk on” as another part), Gomez has to make the rather absurd premise of the show believable. She makes it a joy to watch.
Given the images in the script, one can imagine the design team had a lot of fun with the show. Playing on “The Book of Liz” title, Jacob Keohane designed a set that is literally a book of pages that turn to create various settings of the show.
And what exactly goes into these cheese balls that are so special, people would drive all the way from New York City just to buy them? Though we know what the special ingredient is, what do they actually taste like? Well, Chef Gordon got the recipe from Sister Elizabeth and makes sure everyone starts the night with three cheese balls, rolled in walnuts, and served with crackers and cucumber slices. Herb flavors pop and advice before eating: Don’t scarf the whole plate down in an instant; save at least one for the main course. They are great with everything. They were great on the housemade oatmeal crepes, filled with seasonal veggies and cheese, as well as the sweet potato fries. The crepes were incredibly light for what I think of oatmeal (in fact, my mouth waters now thinking about their savory roasted veggie filling). The spinach was especially surprising: It wasn’t limp or oily but quite lightly sautéed.
The only problem with doing this show as dinner theatre is having a mouthful of food or trying to swallow a drink when one of the laugh lines hit. There are so many I almost choked, so attend with caution. “The Book of Liz” is so fun! It really is exactly what I wanted it to be: a sweet fable, complete with a moral, wrapped up in the absurd, exaggerated stylings of two outstanding humorists.