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Laughs Aplenty

Etcetera does well with the Sedaris' silly 'Book of Liz'

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The satirical musical The Book of Mormon just won a basketful of Tony Awards, and it's the hottest ticket on Broadway. However, it will be quite a while before the show makes its way to Tucson.

In the meantime, we'll just have to make do with The Book of Liz, a clever and silly play by the Talent Family, aka Amy and David Sedaris. Etcetera, the edgier side of Live Theatre Workshop, has mounted a fairly well-done version of the piece, which will run through July 16.

Just as some Latter-day Saints may take offense at The Book of Mormon, you might object to The Book of Liz if you're Squeamish. That is the name of the Amish-like sect in which our story unfolds. A group dedicated to God and the manufacture of cheese balls—plain and smoky—the Squeamish live simply, in a bucolic setting far from the travails of modern life. But that doesn't mean they avoid travails altogether. In fact, even creating the perfect cheese ball cannot prevent Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (Kristi Loera) from feeling unappreciated, especially when a new congregant, Brother Brightbee (Richard Gremel), weasels his way into becoming chief ball-maker. Sister Donderstock also loses her leadership role in the Chastity Parade, and is relegated to working in the chive fields. "I have no temperament for chiving," she laments. So she leaves.

Her journey takes her into a world of unfamiliar sights, sounds and sensibilities, and through her eyes, we see our world in a new light, revealing it to be not altogether sane. Sister Donderstock, likewise, discovers that the Squeamish world may not be altogether bad.

Humorist/satirist David Sedaris was "discovered" by Ira Glass of public radio's This American Life. He has been featured numerous times on that show and has authored several books of personal essays, including Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day. He and his sister Amy, who is an actress known best for her Strangers With Candy, have written several plays, all of which skew various institutions and societal clichés with irreverence and twisted humor. The Book of Liz is consistent with their former output. They don't hesitate to overreach, over-play and over-step, and the resulting stories, witty and sometimes biting, demonstrate a fearless embrace of extremes and the outrageous.

David and Amy Sedaris don't discriminate in slinging their scorn, but they seem to delight less in the seriousness of their satire and more in finding things to make us laugh. And that, they do.

When Sister Donderstock leaves Cluster Haven, the first, uh, thing she comes upon is Mr. Peanut, complete with top hat and cane, executing soft-shoe maneuvers on the side of the road. Waving at passing cars whose inhabitants show little respect for the dancing nut, Mr. Peanut acknowledges these rude folks with the middle-finger salute. So the first thing the good sister learns in this brave new world is a new way of saying hello, a gesture she perfects with ease. Mr. Peanut turns out to be Oxana (Amanda Gremel), an immigrant from Kiev who, with her husband (Ryan Butler), learned to speak English under the tutelage of an Englishman with a Cockney accent. Yvonne thinks Sister Donderstock's fashion sense makes her perfect waitress material for the pilgrim-themed restaurant in town, managed by a very gay Duncan Trask (Steve Wood), and staffed by a posse of recovering alcoholics. The sister fits in fairly well, with only minor parking issues with the llama she rides to work, and she seems destined to advance to a management position. However, she does have a rather serious perspiration problem, which necessitates a doctor's evaluation before she can get the promotion. The doctor (Carley Preston), another "friend of Bill," is sure she can correct the problem with a couple of snips, but Sister Donderstock suggests the use of leeches—and the good doctor is pleased that her patient is so open to alternative medicine.

And so it goes.

Director Christopher Johnson understands that the Sedaris team has created a script with enough built-in fun that a director's heavy hand is not necessary. Although there are a couple of things that feel a bit forced, and therefore false, Johnson generally lets his capable crew have at it, helping them find just the right balance between the earnest and the ridiculous.

There are some solid performances. Eric Anson's Rev. Tollhouse is a hilarious sight, and the actor demonstrates quite a feel for this style of silliness. Leslie Miller's Sister Butterworth makes a fine taste-test subject, nibbling balls in an attempt to discern the missing ingredient (which is another story altogether). Amanda Gremel and Butler are hilarious as a couple about to be deported because of an excess of parking tickets. And Loera capably provides the through line on her quest to find the answers to some of life's most profound questions, such as, "What is a breakfast burrito?"

The Book of Liz is a perfect distraction from the tortuous heat and its attendant misery. Its irreverence is mostly harmless, and there are laughs aplenty. The Book of Mormon, it isn't, but then, it doesn't aspire to be. It does aim to make you laugh, and that, it surely does.

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