Community theater needs more visionaries like Michael Dale Brown, a director at the Costa Mesa Playhouse who's constantly searching for new and unusual plays with which to entertain his audiences. And if he can't find one, he'll write one ("Earthlings, Beware").
Brown's latest discovery is "The Book of Liz" by David and Amy Sedaris, a satirical romp focusing on one crucial element — a recipe for cheese balls. His Costa Mesa production not only entertains but informs — check out his creative "back story" of the show in the program.
The Sedarises' play is a gentle sendup of kooky cloistered religious orders. Theirs is called the Squeamish, which specializes in producing the most delicious cheese balls available. They're the creation of one Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, an underappreciated functionary who, fed up with her treatment, goes missing one day, taking the coveted recipe with her.
Her experiences in the outside world, and the unique characters she meets, comprise the comical crux of the show, with a relatively small cast of six actors taking on some 13 assignments. It's a joyous mixture of broad comedy and heart-tugging sincerity.
In the play's central role of Sister Liz, Norma Jean beautifully elicits memories of rubber-faced TV comediennes past, from Imogene Coca to Carol Burnett. Her performance is alternately heartwarming and knee-slapping in a richly full-blooded interpretation.
Veteran actor Ron Grigsby offers a splendid contrast as the dour Reverend Tollhouse, who runs the Squeamish community and keeps Sister Liz in her place. Barbara Duncan Brown is touching (and a little touched) as Liz's ally, Sister Butterworth.
Excelling in four different characterizations is Ed McBride, a large actor who takes the stage even when not attempting to do so. McBride shifts speedily from a new Squeamish "brother" to an eastern European visitor (here illegally) to a flighty worker in a café run by alcoholics.
Rene Bordelon is a particular treat as Oxana, an aspiring actress initially decked out in a Mr. Peanut costume, and also plays three other characters. Jeff Bickel completes the cast as the shuffling Brother Hesekiah and a pair of other zanies.
Brown and stage manager Steve Endicott have designed a highly effective utilitarian setting well served in this episodic exercise by Ian Foreman's lighting effects.
"The Book of Liz" is, to be sure, something different in the way of stage comedy. It's inoffensively satirical fun and a perfect fit for Michael Dale Brown and the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "The Book of Liz"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 27
Cost: $16 to $18
Call: (949) 650-5269