Cheeseballs play a big part in “The Book of Liz,” a comedy by the Raleigh-raised Amy Sedaris and her brother, David. And the party food is in capable hands: The Sedaris siblings humbly refer to themselves as “the Talent family.”
The cheeseball motif isn’t surprising. Amy Sedaris has a thing for that nutty staple of Southern get-togethers.
“Just Google Amy Sedaris and cheeseball,” Charlotte theater producer Donna Scott suggests. “She used to sell them commercially in New York. And you know, there’s just a good feeling associated with a cheeseball.” A production of the play opens Aug. 6 at the Charlotte Art League.
There’s a good feeling associated with this comedy, too – although in it, something goes awry with the appetizer.
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The title character lives in an enclave with other members of the Squeamish sect. Liz, who earns money for her colony by selling her famous cheeseball, begins to wonder what’s out there beyond her safe religious order. She decides to find out. While the Squeamish are fictional, Liz’s desire to discover what’s missing in her life is very real.
So is the “fish out of water” theme the play explores once the sheltered Liz leaves her home turf.
Tonya Bludsworth, who plays Liz, discovered the script and loved the character and the play, which she describes as “very Sedaris-y.”
“ 'Liz' is light and fun for summer,” Bludsworth said. “It’s good for the space, which was important. And it moves very quickly.”
The play contains just 11 scenes that take place in about an hour and a half. Bludsworth said it’s so densely packed, you may miss some of the jokes because you’re still laughing at the previous line.
Director Glynnis O’Donoghue said the actors have been cracking themselves up during rehearsals. “With a lot of comedies, the jokes get less funny after the cast hears them over and over in rehearsals. But this is staying fresh.”
There’s more to the play than silliness, cheeseballs and food references. (One of the four characters Donna Scott plays is Sister Butterworth. As in the pancake syrup.) “Liz is a change agent without realizing it,” Bludsworth said. “She’s a champion. And even though she goes on this journey and leaves the familiar behind, she never loses her faith.”
A polite rebel
Bludsworth’s Southern Baptist upbringing informs how she sees and portrays Liz, she said.
Scott and her team say the play has a lot to say about conformity: When you blindly follow the rules a group has established, what might you be missing? A little doubt can be the impetus for discovery.
“The unknown is terrifying,” O’Donoghue said. “This is about curiosity versus fear. Liz asks herself, ‘What would happen if …?” Then she bravely (and comically) decides to find out.
But, Bludsworth points out, Liz is questioning in a nonthreatening way. If she’s a rebel at all, she’s a very polite one.
The play honors several art forms: the culinary arts, of course. And it’s being staged inside an art gallery. But that’s not all.
The Donna Scott Productions partners seek out collaborations with other artists. They’re staging this play at a South End art gallery, and they’ve invited local artist Ráed Al-Rawi to design the set. He’s using chalk, so it’s fleeting. After the play closes, the work will be gone.
The set is more than mere backdrop. It’s actually referenced during the play.
In Sedaris world, a set is more than a set. And a simple cheeseball can set someone off on an existential journey.
“The Book of Liz”
Aug. 6-22, Charlotte Art League at 1517 Camden Road. It’s suggested for ages 13 and up. Tickets are $22 and available at carolinatix.org.
Li’L Smoky cheeseball
“The Book of Liz” will feature a cheeseball contest at the opening night reception. Amy Sedaris’ recipe from her book “I Like You” may be the definitive cheeseball.
2 cups shredded smoked Gouda cheese
2 (8-ounce) containers cream cheese
1/2 cup butter
2 1/2 tablespoons milk
2 1/2 teaspoons steak sauce (preferably A-1)
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Ritz crackers for serving
Bring all the ingredients to room temperature. Beat the cheese, cream cheese, butter, milk and steak sauce until completely blended. Chill overnight.
Shape into a ball the next morning. Roll it in the nut mixture. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Before serving, bring to room temperature. Serve with Ritz crackers.
Yield: 1 cheeseball.