IOWA CITY — Aside from the fact that the set is awesome and the acting is fantastic, what I really want to know is who invited playwright Sean Christopher Lewis to any of my girl-group Christmas parties.
His voice is uncanny in capturing the anything-goes voices of women who seek out a safe place with their besties to let anything and everything fly out of their mouths.
Relationship issues, job issues, family issues and even some occasional anger issues. They’re all laid bare in the world premiere of “Rotten Eggnog,” onstage through Dec. 16 at Riverside Theatre.
In the years we were lucky enough to have Lewis based in Iowa City, he churned out plays exploring hard-hitting social issues and the effects of health issues such as dementia on patients and families.
This time, he’s pouring out whip-smart dialogue with a liberal sprinkling of snark on top.
Billed as “a holiday comedy for the disenchanted,” the show revolves around three women approaching middle age, who are gathering for their annual Secret Santa party. One of their gifts is shocking, but all three friends are wrapped up in secrets that take some time to rip open.
They’re meeting at the bar that salty Tori (Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers) inherited from her father. It’s off the beaten path, leaving the trio vulnerable and afraid when they’re harassed by an amorous drunk Tori kicked out with a flurry of insults.
At the start of the play, lawyer Rebecca (Mia Fryvecind Gimenez) is first to arrive, only to find Tori hunkered down behind the bar. Her phone has been disconnected, so she can’t call for help. Rebecca whips out her cellphone to call 911, but the line is busy because the town’s cops are all on Christmas parade duty. Soon librarian Addie (Katy Hahn) makes a grand entrance that puts the other two back into panic mode.
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All three women are a hot mess, with hard-as-nails Tori facing financial difficulties; desperate Rebecca arranging a parking lot tryst with her married ex; and meek Addie railing about her harpy mother-in-law who has just flown in, triggering some deep-seated fears.
All three actors use the playwright’s words as jumping-off points to fully dive into their characters. During Sunday’s post-show talkback, we learned that the play has been a work in progress, with the 10th revision being what audiences are seeing onstage. Fryvecind Gimenez called the process “fascinating and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” All said they appreciated the way Lewis listened to their suggestions to shape the final production.
While the characters are facing potentially life-changing situations, their dialogue is laced with as much humor as the eggnog is laced with rum. Adding to the comic relief, Adam (Rob Merritt) enters between scenes to shower the audience with some hair-metal Christmas karaoke. Adam eventually enters the fray onstage, helping to tie up the loose ends with lots of pesky little knots.
Director Nina Morrison keeps it all together, especially when the action is unraveling. Scenery and lighting designer S. Benjamin Farrar gives the actors plenty to play with in a wonderful bar that’s seen better days, dressed up in Christmas kitsch.
This is a fun diversion from the usual holiday fare — but leave the kids at home. They’re not ready to drink eggnog laced with this much salt and spice.
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IF YOU GO
l What: “Rotten Eggnog”
l Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
l When: To Dec. 16; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
l Tickets: $30, box office, (319) 338-7672 or Riversidetheatre.org