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Actors Comedy Lab Review: The Book of Liz? Think Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore as Interpreted by Voltaire

December 19, 2002 - Raleigh, NC:

Savvy Triangle readers hardly need an introduction to David — and by extension, Amy — Sedaris, although theatre-goers may be pleasantly surprised to discover that these deliciously warped siblings are playwrights whose idiosyncratic collaborative works include One Women Shoe and The Book of Liz (Actors Comedy Lab, Dec. 5-15 at Theatre in the Park). A pretty fair representation of the latter is on view in the current Actors Comedy Lab production at Theatre in the Park.

Liz is a kind of theatrical road movie with a uniquely Sedarisian viewpoint: think Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore as interpreted by Voltaire. The eponymous heroine, unappreciated by her religious order, flees its dogmatic confines and into an outside world as baffling to her as the Luddite life she's known would be to those in the wider culture — one where giant peanuts talk and angry motorists hurl something called a burrito.

Although Elizabeth is the most Candide-like innocent imaginable, she is accepted without prejudice, even loved, by everyone she encounters in contemporary society. For all its strangeness, this new, proudly secular, world is far less judgmental of Liz than the "Christian" enclave she's escaped. Despite its antic nature and satirical skewering of sectarianism, consumer culture, and self-help addicts, this short comedy is, at its core, genuinely benign. Anyone of talent can lambaste for fun and profit, but it takes a certain genius to lampoon with affection and empathy.

A quartet of actors essays the Sedaris's (Sararii's?) epic little cast of characters with variegated efficiency and, sometimes, a great deal more than that. Marykate Cunningham perfectly captures Elizabeth's addled state of being, as well as providing some of the evening's biggest laughs in an inspired cameo performance. Cunningham's Liz is something of a steel magnolia, at once endearingly loopy and unemphatically resolute — as constant as the perpetually matted tresses that poke out from under her starched white bonnet.

Kevin Ferguson and Tony Hefner provide protean support in a variety of parts, but it is Amy Flynn who proves most inspired. Each of the many roles she undertakes in this unruly farce carry the spark of divine comic invention, as unlike one other as Elizabeth's famed cheeseballs are from their ersatz imitations. Whether essaying a Kiev refugee whose Cockney-accented English is the result of being tutored by a chimney-sweep, a society dame complete with turban and Larchmont Lockjaw, or a newly sober physician with a braying laugh, Flynn proves so completely in control of character and material she merits an evening all her own.

Best of all is her breathlessly prattling Sister Butterworth, perfectly named for the condiment that wouldn't melt in her hypocrite's mouth. Gossiping in a demented, bird-like rush, Flynn's Sister B. is a characterization of astonishing ingenuity. Ever alert to the failings of others, she is not above engaging in a dazzling display of screaming hysteria the likes of which we haven't been privileged to witness since the glory days of "The Carol Burnett Show."

If Flynn has a fault it may be that she's a shade too culturally observant; that crying jag is a bit too exact in its evocation of Burnett-schtick, and Flynn's Dr. Ginley sports a laugh pretty neatly borrowed from Penny Marshall's Myrna from the old "Odd Couple" series. Funny? Most assuredly. But disappointingly prosaic given the comedic greatness of which she is clearly capable. Still, that's a tiny cavil in the face of this much gut-bustingly-original ingenuity. Like David and Amy Sedaris themselves, Amy Flynn is sui generis.

My only complaints about Rod Rich's otherwise zestful direction concern the (often lugubrious) changes of Steve Larsen's amusing sets. Since three of these are written to be executed with swift theatricality by the actors (who do so here), one wonders why Rich didn't take a leaf from the Sedarises and handle all of them in a like manner. Blackouts may occasionally be necessary, but a surfeit of them plays hell with comedy.