David Sedaris's National Public Radio voice simmers with eerie, suburban-sounding calm. Everything seems fine in his commentaries -- until the deadly bite of his irony chomps down on yet another morsel of human weirdness. Whether he's recounting his experiences as an elf at Macy's during the holidays (as he did in his now famous "Santaland Diaries") or analyzing American gun laws (what could be stranger?), Sedaris knows how to slice away the decorative inanity of the world and bore right down to the hilariously freakish core.
Unfortunately, much of what turned Sedaris into "the most brilliantly witty New Yorker since Dorothy Parker," as New York Magazine called him, is lost in The Book of Liz, which he wrote in collaboration with sister Amy Sedaris (of Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy fame).
The wacky show, now running at Theater LaB, follows the wanderlusts of Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, who runs off from her home with the Squeamish, an Amish-like religious community, to the bold city. There she encounters a family of friendly Ukrainian immigrants, a restaurant full of gay waiters in a 12-step program, and a doctor who offers to use leeches to alleviate the religious woman's excessive sweating. Meanwhile, back at Clusterhaven, everyone's in a frenzy. It seems that when Sister Donderstock went AWOL, she took the secret ingredient to the Squeamish cheeseballs. Orders for the once fabulous balls are drying up, and the whole community is on the brink of financial ruin.
All of this sounds bizarre enough to fit into a Sedaris monologue, but something's missing from the silliness. In the hands of director Ed Muth and his tepid cast, the scathing Sedaris humor turns lukewarm. It's enough to make you smile, sort of, but it doesn't burn the way Sedaris's NPR commentaries do.
Part of the problem is the writing. The script is smart but lacks focus. It's hard to say what all this oddness is supposed to add up to, other than an amusingly eccentric laundry list of modern Americana. Only a cast with dead-on comic timing could knot these wild ideas together into a finished product. And Muth's cast is simply not up to the challenges of the fragmented script.
Mary Hooper's sweet-faced Elizabeth Donderstock is, like most of the cast, appealing but without any of the wicked double take of wit the script needs to make it funny. Only Carol Younkin's screeching Sister Butterworth, who gossips about everyone and knows absolutely nothing about anything, is appropriately unapologetic about her oddball character. Otherwise, the cast seems unwilling to leap into the absurd flames of the Sedaris landscape, where everything, even the tiny cheeseball, is worth burning in the oven of satire.
At the center of Eric Overmyer's On the Verge are three lovely Victorian ladies who don pith helmets, khaki hiking skirts and bushwhackers to set off in search of terra incognito in 1888. That they wind up in 1955 in a roadside nightclub called Nicky's is only part of the strange fancy of this gangly, time-warped show. This tireless trio encounters plenty of excitement along the way.
Running at just under three hours, Overmyer's surreal lovefest of alliteration and language games (Beckett and Pinter are among the influences here) is too self-indulgent to be entirely successful. But the script bubbles with such strange inventiveness, it's hard to resist entirely. There's the moment our travelers stumble on a cannibal who speaks with a German accent just like his latest dinner; "happens every time," he explains. Then there's Overmyer's fascination with the bizarre stuff of popular culture; everything from Cool Whip to Burma Shave is reason for the wide-eyed Fanny (Celeste Roberts) to say, "Wow! Wow! Wow!" There's also director Wayne Wilden's pretty and fun-loving cast to recommend the production.
Leigh Anne Wuest's Alexandra is a daffy, porcelain-skinned, forward-thinking redhead who spends her trip through the jungle of time longing for "trousers" as they are "eminently more sensible." She's also got a way with confusing her words: "I am refurbished -- I mean refreshed" and "I am hypnotized -- I mean homesick." The most youthful of the three, she's the one who ends up "hanging ten" in 1955. And she finally gets her trousers in the form of skintight white pedal pushers.
Roberts's more reserved Fanny spends her journey missing her husband, "dear Grover," until she finds out from the wise soothsayer "Mr. Coffee" (played with a sexy, sidelong grin by Josh Morrison) that Grover's been dead for years. No matter, this ladylike sojourner eventually lets down her cascades of curls for the silk-shirted nightclub owner Nicky.
Erin Kidwell plays the most fearless of the wanderers, the "anthropologist" Mary. About cannibals she says simply, "There are two sorts of folks in the world. The sort you drink with, and the sort you eat with. Cannibals you drink with." Never smitten with any place in time, she's ever ready to travel on, even when the others want to stay put. "I have such a yearning for the future," she exclaims. "It is boundless."
This cast is irresistible, and were the script significantly shorter, Wilden would have a terrifically successful show on his hands. As it is, the journey is woefully long, with a few remarkable moments along the way.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events