THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF INANE

Amy Sedaris adds a few more trophies to her collection of outrageous characters

Before discussing her new play, Amy Sedaris - who has recently achieved cult status as a surreally upbeat middle-aged ex-hooker high-school student on Comedy Central's Strangers with Candy - is happy to indulge a fan: The actress contorts her face into a crazy cross-hatching of anxious ridges and, her North Carolina twang morphing into an inimitable nasal squeak, delivers the line that made her a star in my crowd: "I like jeans, Mother; I like the lifestyle of jeans!" It's from One Woman Shoe (1995), co-written with typically loopy high/low, old/new logic by Sedaris and her brother David (the essayist and radio commentator), about welfare recipients who stage one-woman shows to earn their keep in a boot-shaped housing project. Recalling the Mickey-Rooney-meets-welfare-reform farce, Sedaris cracks up, too. "That's what I love about writing plays with David," she says. "There's no 'no.'"

Thirty-nine, chatty, and button-cute, Sedaris, a vet of Chicago's Second City troupe, first performed in childhood skits David directed at their grandma's nursing home. Since moving to New York a decade ago, she has floored theater crowds with her uncanny dexterity portraying a panoply of far-out folks: a gang-violence victim in Stitches; a miniature-furniture collector in The Little Frieda Mysteries; a horny donkey in Incident at Cobblers Knob. But Sedaris, who runs a side business selling her homemade cupcakes and cheeseballs, insists that playing unconventionally unattractive types is what comes easiest. "I need something else here," she says, holding a hand out in front of her to suggest the level of remove that, paradoxically, sets her free. "Give me a scar, and I'll give you whatever you want, you know?"

Having begun filming When I Grow Up, an upcoming Fox sitcom, Sedaris says she finds her relatively straight role of a secretary in love with her boss challenging. Her request that her character wear sausage curls - a fashion scar of sorts - was kiboshed. Still, she's optimistic: "I've never had an office job, so it'll be fun - you know, stapling..." she says, aping the old Swingline hand action. What excites Sedaris most, though, is being back in the territory of no "no"-working with David on a new play, set in "a Shaker-type period." The as-yet-untitled Off-Broadway show stars Sedaris as Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a problem-perspiration sufferer who meets Mr. Peanut on a lonesome highway. Sounds like another perfectly twisted Sedaris production. "I like that playful feeling of puttin' on a show !" Sedaris says, fanning her fingers vaudeville-style as she explains her all-American, anything-goes comic philosophy. The deal doesn't really need sweetening, but just in case, Sedaris will be selling her treats in the lobby. -- LOUISA KAMPS

© 2001 ELLE