Sunday, June 23, 2024

Theater Review: “The Book of Liz” at the Vanguard

“The Book of Liz,” a dry and fringe-y culture-clash comedy by Amy and David Sedaris, is, at its most high-minded, a play about the marriage between faith and commerce. At its most elemental, it’s about cheese balls, the woman who bakes them, and the lives thrown into tumult when she abandons her community.

Running through June 28 at the Vanguard in Fort Lauderdale, “Liz” is set among an Amish-like commune, where devoted Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock (Christina Groom) has been whetting the appetites of her flock as well as neighboring towns with her traditional and smoky cheese balls: spheres of herby gouda whose mere mention invokes Pavlovian enchantment. But when visiting Brother Brightbee (Scott Douglas Wilson) deigns to learn the recipe and bake the balls himself—and the church’s leader, Reverend Tollhouse (Matt Stabile), agrees—an offended Liz seeks comfort, for the first time in her cloistered existence, in the outside world.

At this point, the play is already strange, but life beyond the milk-cows and buggies is even more surreal. Liz’s first encounter is with a Cockney-speaking Ukrainian immigrant selling roadside nuts in a Mr. Peanut costume (Elena Maria Garcia), who promptly finds Liz a job waiting tables at a Mayflower-themed chain restaurant called Plymouth Crock, which happens to be staffed almost entirely by recovering alcoholics. Meanwhile, back home, Brightbee’s cheese balls flounder, exports plummet, and the community’s entire economy is at stake.

The Sedaris’ vivid quirk is in full flower in the “The Book of Liz,” but rarely do these humorists of the NPR-cranking wine-and-cheese set achieve full-bodied guffaws. If the play is never boring, it’s also never particularly riveting; at 100 unbroken minutes, the play could have ended well before Liz’s circuitous path to enlightenment reached its emotional payoff, and I probably would have been fine with it.

The reason “The Book of Liz” is worth your time is the tireless work from four deft comic actors at the top of their game, all of whom embody multiple characters like second, third and fourth skins. Under astute direction from Mark Duncan, they all have a blast finding character distinction around the fringes of the script. Wilson plays Brightbee as a constipated, suspender-clutching gasbag of voluminous girth, and he’s even funnier as a bitter Plymouth Crock server with a Valley Boy accent, who combs his hair with a fork and uses a knife as a mirror.

Garcia, who appears in plays all too infrequently, reminds us why she’s one of the region’s most talented and rubbery performers, turning the potentially cut-and-dry business of falling onto a beanbag chair or lifting a butter churn into opportunities for inspired physical comedy. There’s no better moment in the “The Book of Liz” than when Garcia’s Sister Butterworth, the commune’s notorious gossip, is subjected to a blind taste-test of Brightbee’s cheese balls. The scene becomes a tour de force of wordless communication, a cascade of emotion that transitions from pleasure to discomfort to revulsion to utter despair.

Stabile brings the right amount of faithful gravitas to Reverend Tollhouse, but he’s best when embodying the eternally upbeat manager of Plymouth Crock, an effeminate Alcoholics Anonymous espouser who fills out the restaurant’s reservation book with a peacock-feathered pen. Groom, whose character requires her to sweat profusely her entire time onstage (there’s a significant reason for it), plays her sheltered outsider with an infectiously cheerful naivety that hides an inner ferocity. She also makes a fine comic impression as Brother Hesikiah, a blind, wizened, hunchbacked member of the community who is given the insurmountable job of tea server.

The scenic design, by Alyiece Moretto, consists mostly of a pair of giant patchwork quilts embroidered with symbols of the show. You tend to forget it’s there, but it’s an imaginative and subtle through-line for the show’s many scene changes. A final kudo goes out to the costumes and props, credited to Casey Dressler and Nicole Stodard, who selected mismatched shades of black for Wilson and Stabile’s wigs and beards—an early indicator that the world of “The Book of Liz” is more than a little off.

“The Book of Liz” runs through June 28 at the Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $35. Call 813/220-1546 or visit thinkingcaptheatre.com.

Related Articles

Latest Articles