Brash and jocular, ‘Rotten Eggnog’ is the perfect play for Christmas malcontents

Rotten Eggnog

Riverside Theatre — through Dec. 16

(L-R) Katy Hahn, Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers and Mia Fryvecind Gimenez in ‘Rotten Eggnog.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

The world premiere of Rotten Eggnog is former Interim Artistic Director Sean Christopher Lewis’ parting gift to Riverside Theatre. And, as the title suggests, the comedy is often more purposefully distasteful than sweet.

What is eggnog anyhow? Milk, cream, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg. Basically it’s melted ice cream. The ingredients, separately, are fine; together the recipe seems like it would be impossible to drink down — until you add lots of rum. No wonder these three friends drink it by the gallon.

Set in a dive karaoke bar adorned with tacky decorations on Christmas Eve, the play opens on Tori as she awaits her two best friends, Rebecca and Addie. For the last 10 years, the three women have met on the holiday to exchange gifts, tell their worst Christmas stories and share intimate details of their lives to each other.

On this particular Christmas Eve, however, Tori points out that her friends haven’t been at the bar in a long time. Over the course of the play, we learn about the secrets these friends have been keeping from one another.

The three characters first appear as stereotypes: Tori is a loud and uncouth “lady bartender” type, who wields a baseball bat and scares off potential suitors by comparing them to serial killers. Addie is the put-upon wife, doting mother and prim librarian. Rebecca is a stock character from romantic comedies: the unlucky-in-love but otherwise highly successful businesswoman.

The farcical depictions become more complex as the women defy these stereotypes and become more rounded characters, and especially as they confront their own failings in their friendship.

The play is ultimately life-affirming and sweet, but this does not mean, in any sense, that this is anything like It’s a Wonderful Life. (Neither is it comparable to A Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Ernest Saves Christmas, all holiday films brought up to describe Rebecca’s fling with her ex.) If we have to compare this play to any Christmas film, I would suggest Bad Santa: profane and irreverent, but also deeply melancholy.

Mia Fryvecind Gimenez and Katy Hahn in ‘Rotten Eggnog.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Like Bad Santa, this is a hilarious and debauched holiday romp. The play is full of profanity and jokes about bad sex, monstrous mother-in-laws, penis enlargement, pornography at the library, sex cults and John Wayne Gacy lookalikes. The women beat up Santa Claus, break and enter a bar, rob an older woman of her jewelry and commit other crimes.

In Bad Santa, Billy Bob Thornton turns in one of the great portrayals of a self-destructive alcoholic in film, and Terry Zwigoff’s director’s cut of the film is a study in holiday melancholia. Here, likewise, there remains a sadness beneath the repeated punchlines about the controlling mother-in-law tormenting Addie, Rebecca’s bad sex with her ex and Tori moving to Florida to live with her stepfather. The jokes are too close to the bone, showing the insecurities and anxieties of these three women.

Addie feels diminished and bullied by her mother-in-law, and her pain is ignored by her husband Paul, so she turns to violent outlets for her suppressed rage. Rebecca is so desperate to be loved that she repeats the same relationship mistakes ad nauseum, and Tori fondly talks about her father (the former owner of the bar) but never her mother; her only family that seems to be alive is an estranged sister and this relative through marriage.

“I just wonder if behaving like a grown up is some charade we do to hide the fact none of us know what we’re doing,” Addie laments.

Katy Hahn, playing the initially straitlaced librarian Addie, is a true comedic standout. She crouches like Gollum, jumps up on barstools, runs around the stage with arms flailing — her physical presence is gangly and malleable in her movements. She provides the dirtiest lines of the plays with gusto, and her eyes glint with excitement anytime violence is mentioned. This librarian is a barely controlled ball of energy, enthusiasm and rage.

Mia Fryvecind Gimenez as Rebecca in ‘Rotten Eggnog.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Mia Fryvecind Gimenez as Rebecca toes the line between the comedic and tragic. She wears a clingy sweater dress in hopes of a hookup with her ex, a popular Christmas crooner playing a gig at a much more popular bar. She stumbles around the stage, running into bar stools as she replaces her glasses with contacts to appear more attractive. Rebecca meets men on a variety of dating apps, and she considers joining a cult with her boyfriend Joaquin, but declining only because “they were based out of Albany, New York, and honestly I didn’t feel we’d dated long enough for me to do a long distance move.”

Of Lewis’ three lead characters, Rebecca is the one who never fully transcends her tired Sex and the City clichés. We don’t know anything about her beyond her failed relationships (until very late in the play when we learn more about her job and its connection to Tori’s failing business). This does nothing to diminish Giminez’s performance, however, especially in her moving monologue about the loneliness, disconnectedness and lack of community many feel during the holidays.

Tori is a 45 year old woman about to lose her family business and she cannot count on her two friends to support her. “I don’t have much family left but you two fill in really well. You come when you need it. And disappear when you didn’t,” she bemoans.

Despite all her blustery toughness, Tori is played with authenticity and compelling warmth by Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers. Under her tough exterior, she is a softie, and this is why the two younger women befriended her years ago. Addie notes that Tori has “the biggest heart,” and Mooers plays this beautifully as she silently tears up in tense moments between the characters.

Rob Merritt in ‘Rotten Eggnog.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Rounding out the cast is Rob Merritt as Adam, the convincingly sleazy singer wearing pleather pants with a Christmas sweater and Santa-festooned blazer, performing metal-lounge covers of holiday classics between scenes. While we quickly realize he is Rebecca’s ex performing across town, he joins the play proper in the pivotal final act.

Rotten Eggnog is brash and jocular, but the lightheartedness belies a deeper examination of friendship, betrayal, opportunism, failures and forgiveness. While the script could use a little more workshopping to make some of the exchanges sound more like how women speak to each other when men aren’t present, and to develop Rebecca’s character, we can overlook these defects to enjoy the broad comedy at play.

Nina Morrison’s whip smart direction assures deep belly laughs from the audience, and the tender moments of the play are heartfelt and genuine. The design team of S. Benjamin Farrar (scenic & lighting), Jamora Simmons (costuming) and Bri Atwood (sound) have created a familiar, dingy karaoke bar with bad, beloved holiday songs and the usual suspects wearing garb that fits their personalities.

This isn’t a cozy, warm-hearted holiday offering, but it is hilarious, irreverent and not to be missed. This play will appeal especially to the Grinches, Scrooges, lonely souls and other Christmas malcontents in Iowa City, but the play’s friendship affirming ending will warm the coldest of holiday hearts.

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