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‘Book of Liz’ features belly laughs, guffaws and superb comedic acting

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Scene 1 Private Chambers of Rev Tollhouse 03On stage now in the Foulds Theater at the Alliance for the Arts is Theatre Conspiracy’s production of Amy and Davis Sedaris’ The Book of Liz. Directed by Stephen Hooper, it stars Joann Haley, Jim Yarnes, Trevor Beauvois-Kinney and Rachel Burttram.

This is a show that runs the gamut from chuckles and guffaws to thigh-slapping, roll-in-the-aisle belly laughs. Most come from a constant barrage of Scene 2 Kitchen at Cluster Haven 02clever puns, everyday clichés and ridiculously hilarious characters. If you’re a fan of Comedy Central, you’ll flip over The Book of Liz. After all, playwright Amy Sedaris is a Comedy Central alum and contemporary of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

Sedaris herself originally played the role of Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock, who makes cheese balls so delicious that her community of Squeamish (who are Scene 2 Kitchen at Cluster Haven 05along the order of Amish or Mennonites in their adherence to an old time way of living that eschews technology and the means of modern conveyance like cars, trucks and SUVs) make a good living by selling them to the surrounding communities. For Theatre Conspiracy, Joann Haley plays the lead. She’s no stranger to the habit, having played Sister Miriam, the severe and austere Mother Superior of John Pielmeier’s Agnes Scene 3 Country Road 02of God, for Lab Theater. And unlike her character in Book of Liz, Haley possesses the self-confidence and self-esteem to tackle roles made famous by megastars (Sedaris in the case of Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock and Anne Bancroft in the case of Agnes of God’s Sister Miriam). She nails the role of the hyperhidrosis Dunderstock, who has to don a Mr. Peanut costume in order to feel human again.

Haley’s Dunderstock provides the gravity and Scene 5 Yvone and Oxana Parlor 03gravitas around which the other characters revolve. The first of these characters is the authoritative Reverend Tollhouse, who orders Dunderstock to hand over her cheese balls recipes to Brother Brightbee, an ambitious, prideful alpha male intent on claiming for himself the fame and fortune that Sister Dunderstock has brought to Cluster Haven. Jim Yarnes is masterful as the Scene 7 Community Kitchen 03arrogant and misogynistic Tollhouse, but he really hits his stride as Tollhouse’s antithesis, the kindly and charming Duncan Trask, the gay manager of the Plymouth Crock Family Restaurant. True, his lisp and affectations make him something of a stereotypical caricature of a gay man, but that can be forgiven as The Book of Liz is both a homage to and mockery of clichés – and as clichés go, this one is particularly trite and odious.

Trevor Beauvois-Kinney plays the obliviously handsome but unabashedly passive-aggressive Scene 8 Plymouth Crock 02Brother Nathanial Brightbee, Oxana’s rough-around-the-edges boyfriend Yvone, Donny and Rudy.

But the show stopper in The Book of Liz is Burttram. The last time she was on the Foulds Theater stage, Burttram portrayed Lillian Hellman’s Carrie Berniers, the scheming, control-freak spinster sister who concealed her diabolically manipulative ways under a thin façade of magpie Scene 9 Dr. Barb Ginley 04prattle. But that role required reserve, restraint and dramatic flair. In The Book of Liz, Burttram gets to cast off the shackles of role-imposed understatement. From the gossipy busybody Sister Constance Butterworth and Cockney-accented Ukrainian Oxana (who learned English from a chimney-sweep) to the very Jewish Dr. Barb Ginley and worldly, tramp-stamped Ms. Yolanda Foxley, Burttram gives herself over to the glories of unbridled exaggeration, emotionalism and melodrama. It is impossible to take your eyes off her lest you miss an eye roll or pained facial expression. But Burttram’s scenes Scene 10 Butterworth and Brightbee 01with Brother Brightbee go beyond hysterical. As Sister Butterworth, she’s so attracted to short, dark and handsome, that every time she sees him, she devolves into a rash of flushed and blushed self-touching that is, well, orgasmic. Suffice it to say that Meg Ryan doesn’t have anything on Ms. Burttram, and it’s worth going to The Book of Liz just for these interludes alone. But if you need more of an excuse than the mere opportunity to laugh your ass off, then it might be to watch Burttram’s blink-of-an-eye costume changes and the ease and aplomb with which she slips into and out of Scene 10 Butterworth and Brightbee 03different accents and dialects.

There is, of course, an overarching message implicit in this play. We all know that self-esteem is tied to body image, and for the hyperhidrosistic Sister Dunderstock, it’s hard to have a good self-image when you sweat like a pig (iron). But she learns in the end that even a disability as unappetizing as incessant perspiration can make you irreplaceable (as long as the Department of Health and your customers don’t find out that what gives your cheese balls their unique taste is the sweat dripping off your nose into the mix).

Scene 10 Butterworth and Brightbee 05Kudos in this production go to director Stephen Hooper and to Theatre Conspiracy Artistic Director Bill Taylor for yet another imaginative set and well-crafted set.

Go see The Book of Liz. It’s funny. There’s a great deal of exceptionally fine comedic acting. And the show will get you away from all those distasteful political ads and headlines for a solid two hours. See below for plot, play dates, times and ticket information.

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