Amy Sedaris, woman of a thousand grimaces, is presenting a few of her best for your comic delectation in the new Drama Dept. show “The Book of Liz.” A fractured folk tale written by Amy and her brother David, the comic essayist, “Book of Liz” is really just a theatrical tchotchke, an extended comic sketch recalling the heyday of “The Carol Burnett Show.” It nevertheless allows the Sedaris brand of humor — mixing sweetness, sourness and absurdity in equal parts — to bloom in all its surreal glory.
Tale begins in the constricting confines of a Squeamish community (read Amish), where Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (Sedaris) and her cheeseballs are being dissed by the community’s stern leader Reverend Tollhouse.
It seems a male newcomer has arrived from a brother community whose sources of support have faltered. “Our napkin caddies and muffin nests were of the highest quality, but what can one do with those infernal Koreans constantly nipping at the coattails?” Brother Brightbee asks solemnly. The good fellow insists on taking over production of Sister E’s cheeseballs, which single-handedly keep the community in black linen.
Hurt and offended, Sister Elizabeth rebels, lighting out for the big world outside, where she finds things perplexing. Like a tot dazzled by its first taste of life’s mysteries, she can’t let go of the first foreign reference she hears: “What’s a breakfast burrito?” she keeps barking like a lapdog at moments of stress, as Sedaris’ preternaturally expressive eyebrows flap up and down to indicate various stages of befuddlement.
Liz’s adventures include friendship with a peanut — or rather a Ukrainian immigrant with a Cockney accent who’s earning a living impersonating the Planters icon at the side of the road. Later she gets a job at a pilgrim theme diner, the Plymouth Crock Family Restaurant, run by a stern but cheery phalanx of 12-steppers.
These segments are the play’s funniest, and will hit home with anyone familiar with the clannishness of recovery programs. The diner’s one non-AA employee, Donny, seeks to win Liz over to his cynical viewpoint, translating the diner-speak that Liz’s boss Duncan dishes out and adding his own footnote: “The subtext is ‘I can’t control my love of the grape but I can control you.’ ”
The writing boasts many such acidic laughs and moments of linguistic delight — the Sedarises have an infectious affection for the oddities of speech peculiar to their peculiar characters — but it’s really the performers who breathe life into the play’s waywardly silly plot. Director Hugh Hamrick allows the performers free rein to exhibit their various gifts for theatrical caricature.
Sedaris is a sight to see at all times; fans of her Comedy Central show “Strangers With Candy” will already be aware of her Tracey Ullman-esque ability to inhabit the skins of seriously strange folks with delicious ease. Her brief stays inside the papier mache Mr. Peanut are tasty morsels of physical comedy.
Jackie Hoffman seems to simultaneously channel just about every actress in the movie “The Women” — save Norma Shearer — in her role as the busybody Sister Constance Butterworth. She’s also a surreal hoot as a tourist with a decidedly curious speech pattern who drops in on the diner while on a mission to find Cluster Haven’s famous cheeseballs. Chuck Coggins is best employed as the perky, gay 12-stepper Duncan, Liz’s boss at the diner, while David Rakoff flips amusingly between the sententious Brother Brightbee and the snarky Donny.
If such a slight play can be said to have a theme, it’s the importance of defining and defending the rights of the self in a culture that celebrates communities. The overactive sweat glands that make Liz an oddball wherever she goes are also what makes her special. In the play’s sentimental finale, Liz eventually decides that her place is back in Cluster Haven, but she returns there a changed woman who insists on and receives the respect that she’s due. A sweet finale, and one that Sister Butterworth might well stitch on a sampler, but it’s only the show’s more surreal images that are likely to linger long in the memory.