Actress-comedian Amy Sedaris and her brother, humorist-author David Sedaris, have thriving careers that keep them plenty busy on their own. But under the moniker “The Talent Family,” the siblings collaborated on the mid-’90s Comedy Central sketch show Exit 57 and wrote several plays, including The Book of Liz.
At The Vanguard, the newest gem in Fort Lauderdale’s resurgent theatrical scene, the artists of Thinking Cap Theatre have put together a no-holds-barred Book of Liz that does The Talent Family proud.
The comedy is irreverent, goofy, sometimes raunchy, and it requires four actors who can pull off lightning-fast transformations into wildly different characters. (Amy Sedaris and the brilliant Jackie Hoffman, masters of such morphing, were in the original 2001 cast.)
Christina Groom plays Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a member of an Amish-like community known as the Squeamish. She changes least — The Book of Liz follows her journey from her modernity-shunning community out into the world and back — but Groom does get to transform briefly into the tiny, hunched Brother Hezekiah.
Her cast mates, on the other hand, jump from character to character so frequently that they should be suffering from the disorder that bedevils Sister Liz: a sweating problem so intense that, as she describes it, she perspires “like a stallion.” But Elena Maria Garcia, Scott Douglas Wilson and Matt Stabile are terrific pros, so they never let us see ‘em sweat as they portray an array of Squeamish people, recovering alcoholic waiters, Cockney-accented Ukrainian immigrants and more.
Since childhood, Sister Liz has happily been making the thing that supports the community: cheese balls, traditional and smoky. She uses her own secret recipe, but when the pompous Brother Brightbee (Wilson) moves to scenic Clusterhaven and demands to take over the cheese ball operation, the Squeamish leader Brother Tollhouse (Stabile) just lets him. Pondering a future without her beloved balls, Sister Liz flees.
Thus begins her journey through a strange new world. Along the side of the road, she encounters a woman in a Mr. Peanut costume (Garcia) hawking hot nuts and giving speeding drivers the finger. The woman, the Brit-sounding Oxana, and her significan other Yvon (Wilson), help Sister Liz find a waitress job at Plymouth Crock, a theme restaurant in which the servers are all members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Donny (Wilson), a waiter with a whole lot of attitude, combs his hair with a fork and admires the result in the gleaming surface of a knife. Manager Duncan (Stabile) is a nice gay guy who appreciates Liz’s work ethic, stirring within her a futile crush.
Some of the dialogue in The Book of Liz soars, some bombs. Director Mark Duncan, working with some of the region’s funniest actors, keeps the play chugging along through the gags and the duds, though a promised 90-minute running time clocks in at closer to two (intermission-free) hours. Yeah, the Squeamish make a dairy-based product, but that doesn’t mean the actors have to milk certain moments trying to squeeze out more laughs.
Still, working on Alyiece Moretto’s crazy quilt of a set, wearing a wild array of costumes by Casey Dressler and Nicole Stodard (the not-so-pretty Mr. Peanut is by Veronique Cote), four deft comic actors find the funny in The Talent Family’s tale of an innocent if moist gal who learns to express the longing in her modestly-clad heart.