David and Amy Sedaris' The Book of Liz is a smart, funny, shrewdly crafted piece of writing, full of sly social commentary and jam-packed with goofy double entendres. None of this is apparent in Space 55 Theatre Ensemble's leaden production of the play, now on display in a dark corner of downtown Phoenix. I got through the opening-night performance by imagining I was at a high school theater; maybe, I thought, if I pretended that the young people onstage were teenagers just learning their craft, I'd find what they've done to the Sedarises more forgivable.
Nope. Because lack of neither maturity nor talent is excuse enough for missing nearly every joke in a one-act that's crammed to bursting with them especially on opening night, when a theater audience is usually made up of friends and family of the cast. Not even the well-wishers in Space 55's folding chairs could find much to laugh at during this sullen, too-earnest take on the Sedarises' very funny story about an Amishlike community whose sole means of income comes from the sale of cheese balls.
As written, The Book of Liz is an hilarious account of one member of the cheese-ball-making enclave known as the Squeamish who heads out into the real world and spends most of an hour tripping over pop culture, an abundance of puns, and a girl from Kiev dressed as a giant peanut. But in this production, she, as portrayed by young Lauren Henschen, greets each of her delicious laugh lines by stomping on them or ignoring them altogether. Henschen's mumbled reading evacuates any humor from a nearly endless litany of punch lines, and she receives no help from director Joseph Benesh, who I have to imagine spent this past week looking high and low for the laughs that never came on opening night. I hope so, anyway.
For the most part, Henschen's supporting players provide little more than set dressing, and her peculiar original music, performed a cappella during each and every blackout, makes sense only after the play's final scene; until then, it's merely an annoying and badly recorded cacophony.
Shining brightly through this muddle is young Shawna Franks, an actor clearly out of her element here. Franks appears as four different characters (one of them described in the playbill as "Sophisticated Visitor"), each sodistinctly different and so smartly played that I had to check my program to make sure she was, in each instance, the same actress. It's probably a little early in the year to be making such pronouncements, but I wonder if I'll see another actor perform a scene as startling or as powerful as the one in which Franks attacks a tray full of flatware, sending it flying about her as she spouts a stunning tirade. It's a sparkling moment among a series of sturdy performances, all of which come from Franks but, unfortunately, no place else in this flat, humorless pass at a bright comedy.
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