Buttercream & Scotch, an independent production playing this weekend only at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center theater space, is half a great play. Thankfully, the half that’s great shows up at the beginning and is there until the very end, weaving around and buoying up the parts that are less successful. For the great half alone, it’s well worth seeing. Good new work, and vivid new characters, can be hard to come by, and you don’t want to miss them when they show up.
The great half of Buttercream & Scotch is the character of Aunt Gigi (aka, the Scotch), a hilarious human train wreck who drinks too much, screws too much, and is still hopelessly hung up on Adam, the unseen ex-husband who threw her out after “a fight. Not a ‘Tom & Jerry’ cartoon fight. An adult fight, the kind of fight in which you say things you regret.” Paige Collette is brazenly, unselfconciously wonderful as Aunt Gigi. She flops around the stage, loose-limbed, her clothes always threatening to slide right off her body. She is intoxicated, but never incomprehensible, which is a neat trick to pull off. As the friend who attended with me pointed out, “it’s hard to make drunk seem funny. Because it’s been done, and overdone. And as a culture we just don’t find alcoholics very amusing anymore.” I think one of the many reasons Aunt Gigi is still funny, despite the drinking, is that the habit isn’t the thing that rules her. She isn’t desperate for the alcohol, she’s desperate not to feel alone. The drinking, like the sex, is an over-the-top coping mechanism.
The thing Gigi is truly ruled by is her regret, and her desire to remain connected to Adam. To which end, Gigi has a collection of magical old-school rotary and push button phones. These phones are not plugged into anything. In fact, Gigi barely dials them. Most of the time she just (hilariously) swats at them with her hand. And yet, the call always goes through. (In a climactic moment toward the end, someone even calls back.) It’s a delightfully weird departure from reality that, because no one bothers trying explain it, totally works.
Oh, and the drunken voice mail messages Gigi leaves! What gloriously strange bundles of words and peculiar tortured metaphors come tumbling out of her mouth! This is a play that revels in language. The words are rocketing around so fast you can barely keep up. Just a handful of these catchy turns of phrase would be enough to make any play brighten up and cause you to take notice. Buttercream & Scotch is quite literally stuffed with them. The characters will say something amazingly odd and just as your brain is beginning to wrap around it, they’ll be off to the next oddity.
The play was developed over the course of the last several years by the two actresses who play the roles – Collette and her partner in crime Tatiana Pavela, who plays the role of Gigi’s niece Mary Ann (aka, the Buttercream). Samantha Johns directed and designed the whole affair with a sure hand (with assistance on lights from Wu Chen Khoo). Buttercream & Scotch is designed to be a showcase for the writer/performers involved, and for Collette it works like gangbusters.
Which kept making me wonder why Pavela didn’t write herself a better part. She’s obviously a good actress, and she and Collette wrote the play together. It’s not two unblended competing monologues, it’s a collaboration on the page and in performance. But nothing seems to stick to poor Mary Ann. We never really get a look at who she is, even though she’s onstage just as much of the evening as Gigi. We don’t even get most of the details of her as a person very clearly.
For instance, just what is the age difference between Mary Ann and Gigi? We get a reference to Gigi being married for 17 years, and Mary Ann’s milestone 25th birthday lands during the action of the play but… a wig on Collette’s head, no matter how fabulous, does not a clear timeline make. Mary Ann often doesn’t behave as if Gigi is older than she is (though it certainly would explain why Mary Ann puts up with Gigi squatting at her place for as long as she does). It’s an unconventional aunt-niece relationship, to be sure, but we never get a clear sense of the personal dynamics at play between them. They’re not strangers who met and became roommates, they’re family. A sense of history is missing.
At another point, Mary Ann states that she might like to get a job – at which point my brain kicks in with, “Wait a minute. You don’t have a job? How can you afford this apartment? Do you not even need to work? Do your parents somehow take care of you? What reality are you living in?” Because Mary Ann’s reality is sorely constricted by the boundaries of a two person play in which both the people are women. Unlike Gigi, she doesn’t have a colorful cast of characters just offstage who seem vividly real in the way Gigi’s ex-husband Adam, and current lover Jake do. Gigi is obsessed with real people. Mary Ann is obsessed with finding a husband – a generic non-person devoid of detail which she is allowing to rule her life and determine her happiness. That old tired book “The Rules” comes out, as does the old tired website “e-Harmony.” Easy jokes, yes. But this play is so much better than easy jokes. It’s only when Gigi gets on the phone to blast e-Harmony for false advertising that the internet dating bit manifests any real life on stage.
We get a litany of bad dates in a flurry of phrases from Mary Ann, but none of those people gain any traction in our imagination. 25 years old and single, she’s wailing as if her life is over and she’s destined to die alone – at which point this single audience member of 46 just thinks, oh Jesus, get a grip, girl. Because Gigi, in word and deed, does nothing to dispell her niece’s sense of desperation, she just reinforces it. The three talented intelligent women behind this play can’t honestly believe that if you’re not married, life has no meaning. Come on. It’s like Sex & The City, only Gigi and Mary Ann don’t have any close female friends around to provide a reality check. They just spiral off into their own little melodramatic personal psychodrama of despair. Poor Mary Ann exists in a vacuum, tied to no one, allowing things outside herself to determine her own happiness.
Which, if that was what the play was about, fine. OK, tell me that story. But Mary Ann’s character and plotline stumble around blindly in some kind of romantic comedy pinball machine, careening one way, then the next. Meanwhile, Gigi’s character and plotline are a bullet that zip straight through the middle of the play, sharpening everything around them. It’s a credit to both the actresses and the director that the whole evening coheres as well as it does. The use of music is well-calibrated. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” as a soundtrack for Aunt Gigi moving in to Mary Ann’s life is a particularly wonderful marriage of sound and action. But you can sometimes feel the music straining to make up for plot holes. Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good” telling us “it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day” is not the same thing as a character actually having an epiphany about the way they want to live their life.
But this production is just so damn ballsy, you’re willing to forgive it a lot. The creation of Gigi alone is worth the price of admission. And both actresses throw themselves into this thing with abandon. Collette and Pavela are a great comic team. The liberal use of food and drink breaks all the rules of a neat tidy production in all the best ways (warning to those of you sitting in the front row – there’s a splatter zone, wear casual clothes). Anyone who likes a play that toys with language in new and inventive ways will find a lot to enjoy here.
Catch them while you can. Buttercream & Scotch is only here through Saturday night.
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