This year, Balagula Theatre is giving us the gift of comic relief from holiday stress with its production of The Book of Liz by Amy and David Sedaris.
It is a silly play tracing the adventures of a woman from an isolated Amish-type community who runs away to a modern city. The Sedarises have cobbled together rather random experiences for their heroine, and they have treated the material much more mildly than they could have, but at its heart, The Book of Liz is a sweet entertainment about finding your place both in the world and in your own estimation.
As Sister Elizabeth Dunderstock, Karyn Czar brings an earthy vigor to her interactions with the other characters, cagily underplaying the fish-out-of-water shtick in favor of making Liz a real people person. As a result, her observations of others and her battles with herself ring truer for the audience than if she had tried to play them for the situational comedy. She is very funny, but she is touchingly human besides.
Three other actors — Edmund Desiato, Patrick Joel Martin and Melissa Rae Wilkeson — play several roles apiece in the show, all portrayed with broad strokes, and all hilarious. Each of them gets a turn at playing a member of the ascetic sect, an employee of a restaurant run entirely by recovering alcoholics, and assorted other characters — with varying degrees of success with accents. They each excel especially at their sect-member impersonations, and Wilkeson, a versatile performer, contributes a couple of memorable cameos, as a quack doctor desperate for a drink and as a misunderstood, worldly woman with a good heart.
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The set is functional, but a long wall of books representing a public library for scenes that frame the show (a weak device in this instance) becomes distracting after a while because it has no bearing on the rest of the play but dominates it visually throughout. On Sunday's opening night, the light cues needed tightening, to an embarrassing degree.
Ryan Case has directed the comedy with a whimsical touch and a light-hearted tone that work well for the material.
However, on opening night, he drastically upstaged his own show with an outlandish curtain speech more than 10 minutes long, which he performed in a weird but wildly fun persona, culminating in a duet of Tonight You Belong to Me with Kimmy Thomas, who accompanied on the ukulele. The curtain speech was enchanting entertainment, easily the best part of the whole evening. But when the good play itself can't compete with the preliminaries, you've gone too far. Case should definitely develop a show around that zany character, but as the best thing about The Book of Liz, he automatically defeated his own purpose, becoming the worst thing.
I beg all presenters to dispense with curtain speeches altogether. They are an utterly provincial custom: Can you imagine someone coming out and talking before a Broadway play or at a New York Philharmonic concert? The corporate sponsors and individual donors are already in the program. The audience already knows the organization needs money and that they should sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Someone's cell phone will probably go off anyway. Please, let's just get on with the performance and eliminate the blight of the ubiquitous curtain speech.