Playwright-actor Amy Sedaris' answering machine reportedly identifies her number as a suicide hotline-the caller is then invited to “please hold.” The exhortation is funny in an ironic sort of way, unless, of course, you're actually in need of help. Presumably, Sedaris didn't think that far ahead.
And that's sort of how her play The Book of Liz comes across. This current Cygnet Theatre production is a comfortable outing, with director Sean Murray having coaxed performances ranging from the game (David McBean as Brightbee) to the outstanding (the invaluable Melissa Fernandes doesn't miss a beat in any of her five roles). And perpetually recovering Catholics, myself included, do get another chance at vicarious retribution. In this case, the Squeamish provide the fun-this geeky backwoods religious order is dripping in fairweather Christianity, gender prejudice and a general disdain for the outside world.
The public has always welcomed comic tales of religious hypocrisy and the elements that drive it; the modern theater has responded with some pretty good plays, like the wacky Nunsense and the morbid Sister Ignatius Explains It All for You. By comparison, the humor in The Book of Liz is inexplicably tame, trading ridicule and sarcasm for an almost gentle commentary on one woman's coming of age. Like the lukewarm quip about the suicide hotline, this text's bite barely leaves a mark on a subject that begs to be bitten.
The story, co-written by Sedaris' famous writer-brother David, involves Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock (Annie Hinton), who abandons the cloister in a huff in search of her place in the world. Unfortunately, her only skill lies in the art of cheeseball manufacture. These cheeseballs may by innocuous, but they're also mighty fine eatin'-their brisk sales have single-handedly kept the enclave afloat for years, and Liz's departure has all but bankrupted it.
Her wanderlust sated, she returns and resumes her task, this time to great fanfare about the secret ingredient that makes her cheeseballs such an unfettered hit. This little revelation, like so many others in this play, is a blatant reach for laughs. Often, the dialogue only makes matters worse by signaling such plot points. And although the pace is well-modulated and digestible, it gets that way through anticlimactic and open-ended speeches. “Of course I can write!” Liz retorts to Reverend Tollhouse (Michael Grant Hall) early on. “Who do you think addressed your Christmas card?”
It may just be that the writers got in each other's way. Or possibly, they're so used to each other's styles that due diligence took a back seat. In any event, The Book of Liz sacrifices real-life wit and brawn for the look and feel of a dream. That's fine for The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy Gale, but not for Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock.
The Book of Liz runs in repertory with David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries at Cygnet Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd., through Dec. 23. $22-$26. 619-337-1525, ext. 3.