Category Archive for: ‘Woody Weingarten’

‘The Book of Liz’ is a farce with serious undertones

Woody’s Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Sister Elizabeth Donderstock (AJ Davenport) describes the joys of making cheeseballs to Rev. Tollhouse (Justin Gillman) in “The Book of Liz.” Photo by Jay Yamada.

Brother Brightbee (Stefin Collins) consoles Sister Butterworth (Teri Whipple). Photo by Jay Yamada.

My silliness-appreciation gland may have malfunctioned.

At precisely the wrong time:

While watching “The Book of Liz,” a one-act revival written by a comic brother-sister team, David and Amy Sedaris.

Because my gland wasn’t throbbing properly, I couldn’t fully marvel at the queen-sized Mr. Peanut costume, the Cockney accents of two Ukrainian characters, the Pilgrim-suited alcoholics who staff the Plymouth Crock restaurant, or references to a Chastity Parade that red-flags the “danger of casual glancing.”

Nor did the intentionally fake beards of the black suited, black-hatted Squeamish clergy, a crypto-Amish spoof, make me chuckle.

I was, admittedly, among a small stone-faced minority though.

Many in the sold-out audience laughed loudly, and they applauded vigorously at the play’s end.

Brian Katz, artistic director, and Leah S. Abrams, executive director, co-founders of The Custom Made Theatre Co., which operates out of the Gough St. Playhouse in San Francisco, obviously believe in the 80-minute farce without qualification.

This run marks their company’s fourth time.

It was only my first.

Amy Sedaris, best known for portraying Jerri Blank on Comedy Central’s “Strangers with Candy,” in 2002 originated the off-Broadway role of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a disgruntled nun who runs away from the order because she’s undervalued and bullied by its leader, the Rev. Tollhouse, and newly arrived Brother Nathaniel Brightbee.

In this production, AJ Davenport plays that devout cheeseball-making nun with mock-seriousness (“Cheeseballs are practically my life — aside from God”) coupled with the comic conceit of wiping prodigious sweat from her face and brow.

Justin Gillman skillfully injects faux hypocrisy into his role as Tollhouse, and Stefin Collins capably portrays Brightbee as a highly flawed interloper.

Although all four actors play multiple roles, Teri Whipple becomes the numerical all-purpose champ by taking on half a dozen.

I’ve long found David Sedaris’ style of humor stimulated my funnybone better than Amy’s.

His writing most often seemed to me personal, witty and sophisticated while hers frequently struck me as off-kilter and sophomoric.

To me, “The Book of Liz” feels as if Sister Sedaris pushed infinitely more computer keys and concocted a Saturday Night Live sketch that went on too long.

David’s fame stems from his radio essay “SantaLand Diaries” (which detailed his experiences as an elf at Macy’s), his countless New Yorker pieces and a series of books, most of which rely on exaggerated tales of his life, his gay lover and the Sedaris family.


Typically he’s droll, although he leaned heavily on gravitas in a New Yorker piece late last year after his sister Tiffany killed herself.

Not everything in “Liz” is intended to be comical either; intermittently a serious undertone surfaces (“Why is it I had to dress like a peanut to feel human again?”).

Maybe I should have been checking my earnestness-appreciation gland all along.

“The Book of Liz” plays at the Gough St. Playhouse, 1620 Gough St. (in the basement of the Trinity Episcopal Church, at Bush), San Francisco, through Aug. 2. Tickets: $25 to $35. Information: (415) 798-2682 or

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