Amy and David Sedaris are both successful authors, humorists and playwrights in their own rights, but when they team up, the results are truly hilarious. Such is the case with their 2001 play, “The Book of Liz,” currently playing at The Vanguard in Fort Lauderdale.
Set in an isolated, Amish-like community know as the Squeamish, “The Book of Liz” blatantly pokes fun at religion, societal mores and 12-step programs. Not to be confused with the controversial, potty-mouthed musical, “The Book of Mormon” from the creators of “South Park,” this play is still more than a bit racy, with plenty of heart.
Sister Elizabeth Dunderstalk (Christina Groom) is the creator of the community’s delicious—and commercially successful—traditional and smoky cheese balls, a delectable and distinctive combination of cheese and flavorful herbs.
When Rev. Tollhouse (Matt Stabile), the community’s spiritual leader, becomes concerned with outside influences on Sister Elizabeth, he orders her to turn over the secret cheese ball recipes to the pompous Brother Nathaniel Brightbee (Scott Douglas Wilson).
Dejected, Sister Elizabeth runs away from the community only to encounter a peanut suit-wearing Ukrainian immigrant with a Cockney accent (she was taught English by a former chimney sweep) and later take a job at a campy Pilgrim-themed restaurant, “Plymouth Crock,” that will remind audiences of a 17th century version of Cracker Barrel. Oh, and did I mention the restaurant manager (Stabile) is a highly-committed, gay 12-stepper? Along the way, she discovers “Liz.”
Only the Sedaris siblings could concoct such an oddball collection of characters and the key to the success of any production of “The Book of Liz” is an incredibly flexible cast of four who can change character—and costumes—in the blink of an eye.
Garcia, in particular, is one of the most talented character actresses in South Florida. She nails every one of her characters from the busybody Sister Constance Butterworth to the “worldly” Ms. Foxley, the delivery person who initially opened Liz’s eyes.
Groom is charming as the naïve and Sister Elizabeth, but brings depth to the character as, with knowledge and experience, she comes to understand both the pitfalls and opportunities that come with living among the Squeamish. Stabile and Wilson both nail their pious and inherently sexist religious men, as well as their own coterie of characters.
Under Mark Duncan’s quick-paced, but thoughtful direction, the cast prevents the play from devolving into an extended “Saturday Night Live” skit, and instead offers a satirical look at blind faith and the many forms its takes.
The Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts, a converted church on South Andrews Avenue across from Broward Health Medical Center, is the newest venue for Nicole Stodard’s Thinking Cap Theatre and has been beautifully renovated and outfitted for intimate theater.
David Hart’s sound design and lighting from Calypso Hernandez accentuate the production, as do the quick-change costumes from Stodard and Casey Dressler. The minimalist set by Alyiece Moretto features flats painted with colorful quilt and folk art images pulled from the script.
As the Broward LGBT community celebrates its pride this weekend, “The Book of Liz” offers profound lessons about identity that should not be missed.
“The Book of Liz” by Amy and David Sedaris is presented by Thinking Cap Theatre, at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave. in Fort Lauderdale, Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m. through June 28. Tickets are $35 at ThinkingCapTheatre.com.