For fans of David and Amy Sedaris, the siblings’ recent rise to stardom has been a mixed blessing. Sure, it’s been a thrill to watch Amy get away with her bewigged, prosthetically altered antics on the tube (in Strangers With Candy). And who could begrudge David his victorious assault on the heights of the Times bestseller list? But those successes have come at a price: It’s been nearly four nail-biting years since the Talent Family, as the duo have archly dubbed themselves, last undertook one of their twisted theatrical satires.
The Book of Liz was worth the wait. In what may well be the world’s first Amish picaresque, one Elizabeth Donderstock (played with an overbite, but no fat suit, by Amy Sedaris) finds herself growing restless in the cloistered, plain-living community of Clusterhaven, where “the cider kicketh not,” the elders trim their greasy beards “only occasionally,” and the young men rise at three to wake the livestock. Elizabeth’s been supporting the village since age 12 by making gouda-and-walnut balls, but when the brash young Brother Nathaniel Brightbee (David Rakoff) tries to horn in on the cheese-rolling operation and banish her to herb-harvesting duty, she runs away. (Though not without fair warning: “I’ve not the temperament for chiving!” she wails.)
In the outside world for the first time, Elizabeth is taken in by a trailerful of kindly Ukrainian immigrants who speak with Cockney accents, thanks to the London chimney sweep who tutored them in English. She finds work at a Puritan-themed family restaurant called Plymouth Crock. Though the restaurant is staffed entirely by recovering alcoholics, Elizabeth fits right in, partly because of her simple black “danderfrock,” and partly because her coworkers’ AA platitudes so closely resemble the pious exhortations she’s grown up with in Clusterhaven. Soon Liz is dishing out Musket Snuffer’s breakfast specials and 12-step wisdom (“If you don’t believe in a power higher than yourself, try jumpin’ in the air and staying there!”). It goes almost without saying that Elizabeth and the community eventually find they need each other after all—though the secret cheese ball ingredient that creates the bond will leave you squirming.
The script’s gag lines—which satirize not so much Amish people and alcoholics, per se, but the way these groups are exploited by more sentimental, straightforward imaginations—are hilarious on their own. But the most satisfying aspect of The Book of Liz is watching the four-player cast—Sedaris, Rakoff, Jackie Hoffman, and Chuck Coggins—having such a high time with the material. In the years since the last Talent Family productions, Incident at Cobbler’s Knob and The Little Frieda Mysteries, they’ve grown even more adept at delivering rapid-fire dialogue and pulling off multiple roles. Hoffman, in particular, turns in showstopping performances as the town gossip, a butch delivery woman, and a ridiculous parade of characters in between. As ex-boozer Dr. Barb Ginley, Hoffman offers the pithiest expression of the play’s spirit. “Maybe we need our burdens to appreciate our blessings,” Elizabeth suggests pertly. “So what?” Hoffman’s doctor answers. “I should still be drinking a fifth of vodka and waking up with cum in my ear, just to appreciate the fact that I’m alive?”