Sibling scripters Amy Sedaris and David Sedaris (Obie-winning “One-Woman Shoe”) have fashioned a wacky tale of the misadventures of pious yet resourceful Sister Elizabeth Donderstrock (Ann Magnuson). Played out in 11 hit-and-miss scenes, “The Book of Liz” lacks thematic cohesiveness, achieving its high-farce goal only when filtered through the individual talents of Magnuson, Mike Genovese, Susan Ruttan and Laura Pruden. Helmer Darin Anthony does not elicit the same zaniness from the ensemble as a whole.
It seems Sister Liz is Squeamish, a Shaker-like community whose source of income is the sale of the renowned Cluster Haven cheese balls (traditional and smoky), invented and lovingly prepared by Liz. Liz’s only areas of discomfort are her nonstop perspiration, the incessant kibitzing of Sister Constance Butterworth (Ruttan) and the ramrod chauvinism of the community’s patriarch, Reverend Tollhouse (Genovese).
When the Reverend commands Liz to turn over the cheese ball concession, secret recipe and all, to sanctimonious new arrival Brother Nathaniel Brightbee (Jeff Witzke), Liz is demoted to harvesting chives. Declaring, “I don’t have the temperament for chiving,” she flees the community.
She works as a temp Mr. Peanut; moves into the trailer home of earthy Ukrainian duo Oxana (Johanna McKay) and Yvone (Sam Zeller); and lands a job at a pilgrim-themed restaurant managed by Duncan Trask (Tom Lenk), a gay recovering alcoholic who usually hires only fellow AA members.
It seems Liz is as competent as she is pure, giving Trask the inspiration to recommend her for manager after he leaves, if she can solve her perspiration problem and is willing to wear the restaurant’s new-look miniskirted uniform. Instead, she returns to Cluster Haven, which is not running too well without her.
This episodic legiter generally places characters in two- or three-person sketchlike vignettes. This works fine when Magnuson’s wonderfully off-center Liz is teamed with someone of equal comedic sensibilities, such as Pruden, who portrays a variety of characters. Particularly hilarious are Liz’s encounters with Pruden’s gutter-mouthed Dr. Barb Ginley and glittery thong-sporting sales rep Yolanda Foxley.
Emmy-nominated Ruttan (“L.A. Law”) is a delight as the mischievous Sister Constance, particularly when she is asked to do a blind taste test, comparing the new cheese balls prepared by Brother Nathaniel to those made by Liz. Genovese also scores whenever Reverend Tollhouse’s deeply grave, well-timed edicts put him in conflict with either Magnuson or Ruttan.
Unfortunately, many of the scenes fail to ignite. Witzke’s Nathaniel would be more successful if he were less whiny. The ongoing gay interplay between Trask and restaurant worker Donny Polk (Matt Crabtree) is decidedly forced and humorless. The supposed Ukrainian accents of McKay’s Oxana and Zeller’s Yvone sound like they were acquired in Piccadilly, and their character interaction exhibits a woeful lock of focus and direction.
Jason Z. Cohen’s cleverly modular set serves the scenes quite well, as do the character-perfect costumes of Julia Austerman, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting and the evocative sound design by Warren Davis.