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Strangers With Cheeseballs

by John Rodat on July 28, 2011

The Book of Liz
Written by Amy and David Sedaris, directed by Thomas Gruenewald
New Stage Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, Mass., July 15

I was unaware that sibling entertainers Amy and David Sedaris had written a play together until I saw the billing for the New Stage Performing Arts Center’s production of The Book of Liz. (I have since discovered they’ve written a half-dozen or so.) And once aware, there was no way I was going to miss it.

The Sedarises are, each, distinctly talented humorists: David is, perhaps, the more widely known for his bestselling, semi-autobiographical essay collections, his reading tours and his appearances on National Public Radio. His breakthrough moment, the reading of his essay “SantaLand Diaries” in 1992, is, still, one of the high points of NPR’s existence. Still though, it’s his sister Amy, star of Comedy Central’s cult series Strangers With Candy, whom I find most fun. As frequent host to Amy’s antics David Letterman might say, “That gal’s just plain nuts.”

I was eager to see the result of a collaboration that, family connection aside, seemed unlikely. How would the two combine David’s wry and witty observations about family dynamics, homosexuality, substance abuse and culture shock with Amy’s demented brand of girl power and her anarchic take on the domestic arts of craft and kitchen?

In retrospect, I feel foolish for not intuiting the answer: by writing a play about culture shock and cheeseballs.

Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock (Diane Prusha) is a culinarily gifted member of the Cluster Haven parish of Squeamish country. The Squeamish are a traditional “simple living” community, famed for their quality craftsmanship and, particularly, for their delicious cheeseballs—the recipe for which was devised by Sister Elizabeth, who is still the sole producer. But when a transplant from a nearby parish arrives, and with the support of the Cluster Haven’s pastor, Reverend Tollhouse, tries to streamline the production process, Elizabeth rebels.

With little more than a bindle and an ever-present handkerchief to mop her profuse perspiration (it’s a glandular thing), Elizabeth sets off to make her way in the modern world. She is befriended and abetted by a quirky Russian couple, secures a waitressing gig in a Pilgrim-themed restaurant, Plymouth Crock, and becomes close with a eccentric collection of atraditional characters, homosexuals and recovering addicts among them (thanks, David!). Meanwhile, robbed of its most talented member, Cluster Haven falls on hard times.

Diane Prusha plays Sister Elizabeth with a sweet solidity, combining a kind of breathy wonder at the oddities of the outside world with a resoluteness that allows her a greater decency than her more harshly judgmental brethren and sistren. The consistency of her portrayal gives the play a stable center around which the other players of this small cast can play their multiple roles: As the stern and pompous Reverend Tollhouse and as the gay, 12-stepping manager of Plymouth Crock, Ken De Loreto is appropriately imposing and amusing. In fact, his a challenging presence to match. In her roles—particularly the bubbly Russian immigrant, Oxana, and the babbly Sister Constance Butterworth—Karen Lee more than holds her own. Her Oxana’s oddball immigrant optimism is an excellent balance to the natives’ own relationships to opportunity. In his somewhat slighter roles—the newcomer Brother Nathaniel Brightbee and Oxana’s man, Yvone, among others—Alex Reczkowki is slightly overshadowed. In favorable ways, both De Loreto and Lee take up a lot of space, metaphorically. But Reczkowski makes the best of the space afforded him. And all the players have a comfortable grasp on the material, which is, frankly, pretty goofy stuff.

But it’s goofy stuff with heart, and the story of return and redemption is well handled by this troupe. The New Stage is, as the name indicates, a young organization. I was happy to see evidence that, in this case, youth means energy and amusing idiosyncrasy.