The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told does not lack for outrageousness. Playing at New York Theatre Workshop, this new satire from playwright-screenwriter Paul Rudnick takes the Christian Right slogan "The Bible says Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" -- and upends it.
Here, it's Adam and Steve who romp naked through the Garden of Eden (nude men are everywhere on and off-Broadway these days). Their idyll ends when Adam's earnest questions about the existence of a supreme deity and life beyond the garden condemn them to a barren wilderness settled by two lesbians, Jane and Mabel. After various Act I misadventures inspired by the good book, and a perplexing confrontation with a God fearing, and ever-multiplying, race of beings called "heterosexuals," the play leaps forward to present-day New York for Act II. Here God is noticeably silent as these four main characters, and assorted friends and interlopers, struggle with the miseries and anxieties of pregnancy, AIDS, and an apartment set riotously overdecorated with holiday season bric-a brac, including a Christmas tree topped by a menorah.
Rudnick, best-known to theatregoers for the Obie-winning Jeffrey , tackles The Big Issues: the meaning of God, the meaning of life, Good ("bunnies, caring, and respect"), Evil ("Anything I don't like"), angels ("Prozac for poor people"), virgin birth, lesbian birth, virgin lesbian birth, bestiality, and the proper way to dry bedsheets ("fold and fluff"). The playwright's bon mots are dropped by a enthusiastic cast, including a reigning comedy queen of Off- and way-Off Broadway, Amy Sedaris, whose casting may be Most Fabulous ' most surprising element.
Sedaris plays God. Or, as she is credited, the Stage Manager. Speaking through a headset, she commands the show's lighting and effects; when displeased with the onstage activities, she hurls floodwaters and thunderbolts at the characters in Act I, then recedes till the close of Act II. Dressed in dun-colored corduroys, a black turtleneck, and a $10 belt from her own closet, Sedaris is largely situated throughout behind a desk at the far side of the stage, where she flips through notes on a clipboard, and issues her dictates in a no-nonsense monotone. A gender-bending version of Michael Douglas in "A Chorus Line: The Movie" is not what her fans would anticipate from a comedienne given to lashing her nose to her face with Scotch tape, waddling around with a bulbous fake rear end attached to her lower half, and bawling obscenities in strange accents. But with Sedaris, one learns to expect the unexpected.
"Paul and Chris [director Christopher Ashley, who also took home an Obie for Jeffrey ] called me and offered me the part of the Stage Manager, and after about 30 seconds I said of course -- how could I say no?" says Sedaris, who saw and loved the show at the Williamstown Theatre Festival over the summer. Most Fabulous is only the second play she has done outside her usual circle of collaborators; the first, Douglas Carter Beane's The Country Club at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut, was "a unique experience for me, like being paralyzed, or having a baby." She had no hesitation about being sidelined for much of this new production: "I like my part a lot; I like being able to sit in a chair for two hours, and read tattooing magazines I get from backstage waiting for my cue in the second act," she laughs. Most Fabulous gives also her an opportunity to show she can play well with others, without the crutch of heavy costuming (or just a crutch, or her favorite prop, a wheelchair). "They asked me to play myself, and I accepted," says Sedaris, who looks younger than her 36 years but prefers playing characters of advancing years, usually with some sort of infirmity. Old habits died hard, however: "I thought, 'OK, I'll be myself.' Then, because props always give me confidence, I immediately suggested I put on a hunchback, or a wig, or a mole, or a corrective shoe. But Chris and Paul said no, just you, and I thought, well, there's a stretch-being onstage in clothes that fit me, with my hair down. I feel I'm more in disguise than in any show I've done."
The Stage Manager also reflects the co-creative responsibilities that have made her a hit with critics and audiences since she arrived in New York in 1993. With her older brother David, Amy Sedaris is one-half of The Talent Factory, which for the last several years has been turning out absurdist farces that have rocked the house at La MaMa downtown: Jamboree, Stump the Host, Stitches, the Obie-winning One Woman Shoe, The Little Frieda Mysteries, and Incident at Cobbler's Knob, performed at the Lincoln Center Festival. In these, Sedaris typically entombs herself, Lon Chaney-like, in some sort of wacky costume; that would seem to qualify her for the most exaggerated vignettes in Most Fabulous, which, after all, hails from the screenwriter of the grotesquely stylized "Addams Family" movies. Sedaris, however, says that the Stage Manager gets under her skin, rather than over it.
"She's a control freak. And I'm definitely pretty organized, more of a leader than a follower -- I'm good at generating enthusiasm, motivating people, and putting a play together." Her labors extend to staying up till 3 AM baking muffins, for sale the next day in the theatre lobby. "Plus there are real, trained actors in this show, and they're just incredible; David and I usually just hire hams. The spirit of putting this production together with Chris and Paul is like me and David putting on a show together, and that's what I enjoy about it."
She is also tickled to be playing God, "but I don't think of it that way -- I mean, me, God? I dug no deeper than thinking of her as a stage manager who thinks she's God, as all stage managers do," she laughs. Her relationship with God is one that exists largely in her own head. "David and I were raised in the Greek Orthodox church, and the mass was all in Greek, so we couldn't understand what the priest was saying. So I made up my own religion, where the old guy standing behind the priest was God." She also has an imaginary boyfriend; more about him later.
Some time ago, David Sedaris created a resume for his "5' 2" Grecian spitfire" of a sister, mostly highlighting an extensive waitressing career that began in her native Raleigh, NC (her true speaking voice is pleasantly accented), continued through five years at Second City in Chicago, and is ongoing in Manhattan, at Marions in the Bowery. "I'm not leaving till I make Employee of the Month," she vows.
Sedaris may need a few days off next year, however. She spent two seasons on Comedy Central's "Exit 57" sketch show, and the network has signed on for another of her collaborative ventures, "Way Afterschool Special," which is scheduled to begin airing this April 7, following "South Park." A weekly sendup of the ABC TV programs of the 70s, the show finds her on familiar ground: "I play a 47-year-old who dropped out of high school at the age of 15, then had lots of drug experiences and did time in prison. I drop back in and face the typical problems of a teenager, plus the uterine scrapes of an older woman." No doubt an episode or two will allow her to use her beloved wheelchairs -- she owns two, an 18th-century model and a contemporary one, both swiped from past shows. "I wheel myself around my apartment all the time. I just know I'm going to wind up in one for real one day, so I figure I should get used to them," she says.
From the box to the boards, The Talent Factory plans to tour The Little Frieda Mysteries next year. All this, plus a new Talent Factory show for '99, means her very budding film career is on hiatus. "My back is in `Six Days Seven Nights,' " she jokes. "That's my back, handing flowers to Anne Heche in one scene. I plan to open my reel with that one." Pausing, she says, "I don't have the patience to work on films; you do the same things over and over again, and it's very stiff after a while. I like theatre; it's live, and you can look out and know who your audience is."
Sedaris is looking for an audience this Christmas, a somewhat blue holiday this year, as her family will not be convening in North Carolina as usual ("everyone is going to France to visit David, who's finishing a new book there"). She will be raiding the dumpsters outside New York's finest produce shops looking for carrot tops and dandelion greens to feed her three-year-old pet rabbit, Tattletale, and there will be a visit from Ricky, her aforementioned imaginary boyfriend. "Five years ago at a thrift store I found a stocking with the name 'Ricky' on it and decided he was the one for me. He comes to town for Thanksgiving and Christmas and the family just loves him." To provide a little real-life cheer, you can visit her at Marions this Christmas Eve, where she'll be hoisting trays. Bring a wheelchair as a gift; it's the least you can do for God this holiday season.
--By Robert Cashill