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by Michael L. Quintos
While laughing fairly consistently throughout Molly Smith Metzler's funny new American play ELEMENO PEA—now having its West Coast premiere engagement at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through February 26—a couple of thoughts came to mind almost immediately.
First, sitting through this snarky, very timely comedy about class conflicts during its recent opening night performance felt almost like being in the midst of a live studio audience for a taping of a fresh, well-produced TV sitcom pilot. And second, the play reminded me of a popular, funny Twitter trending topic: #White-People-Problems. Actually, with so much talk about the wicked behavior and unfair economic advantages displayed by the upper 1% of the US population with fatter wallets than the rest of us, the more appropriate internet hashtagged meme would probably be #Rich-White-People-Problems. If it was possible to extend the life of a Twitter hashtag, this play does it with wry humor and even a surprising amount of pathos.
And where else in New England can such ridiculous wealth and excess be in abundance—and be exploited for laughs—than in the posh, oh-so-exclusive enclave of Martha's Vineyard? As autumn looms in this summer getaway 'burb—Labor Day has just passed and the summering part-time residents have all but left the island—it is here where we meet a pair of instantly likable sisters that are at the heart of the play. There's Simone (Melanie Lora), a smart, well-dressed sprite who works locally for the Kells; specifically, as a very busy personal assistant for Michaela Kells, one of the demanding trophy wives in town. Constantly on-call, she has somehow found the time and energy to host her more blue-collar older sister Devon (the expertly sarcastic Cassie Beck) for a weekend visit.
As expected, Metzler spends much of the play—particularly in the beginning—mining the giddy pleasure of seeing (and hearing) Devon's understandable reactions and unfiltered teasing about the insanely luxe surroundings her sister now lives in. It's easy to drop your jaw (along with a few F-bombs) right along with Devon upon seeing this absurd display of higher living—quite a stark contrast to their meager upbringing in Buffalo, New York. From remote-controlled lights and window treatments, an omniscient jukebox that responds to voice commands, an endless supply of top-shelf liquor, to the gorgeously pristine furniture lifted right out of a Candice Olsen / Nate Berkus sketch—it's all a bit Richie Rich for Devon, who, at the moment, is squatting in her parents' basement after the implosion of her last relationship. And all of this, by the way, is just what's in the Kells' guest house that's adjacent to the main residence! The guest house!
With all their seemingly good-natured ribbing, it's easy to notice that the two sisters have an easy, pleasant rapport typical of close-knit siblings. But, as such, their candidness also reveals an underlying resentment towards each other's life choices, just bubbling under the surface. Soon enough, the play unearths some of their complicated recent histories.
Simone can't quite disguise her concern about Devon's recent personal stumbles and her trepidation about her sister's sidelined career as a social worker—for a meager job at their hometown Olive Garden. Devon, for her part, appears both jealous and a little annoyed that her college-educated sister has morphed into a highfalutin' (albeit highly-paid) beck-and-call girl for a spoiled socialite. Previously much more down-to-earth, Simone has apparently been drinking the town's Kool Aid (or perhaps the Dom Pérignon) and is now comfortably ensconced into this high-brow, boat-sailing, salmon-colored pants world. "You're a rent-a-friend to these icky people!" protests Devon. "Your life is like a J-Lo movie!"
Their already tense reunion is further complicated by the sudden appearance of Simone's boss Michaela (the superb Katrina Lenk), a whirling dervish of ultra-expensive designer duds and amplified histrionics straight out of the Bravo network's Housewives franchise. Hysterical and exhausted, Michaela—who was supposed to be on her way to the Big Apple with her ad exec husband Peter—has shown up at the carriage house with heels in hand after being abandoned by her husband with nary an explanation by the side of the road.
We soon learn that behind the lavish lifestyle, palatial walls, and meticulously manicured grounds of the Kells household, is a marriage on the verge of collapse. As Simone acts as peacemaker, mother and mood soother towards her employer (defending Michaela unequivocally despite her bad behavior), Devon can't help but be both appalled and amused by the entire affair. Along the way, preconceptions are shattered and secrets are splayed bare and raw.
Under the steady, well-paced direction of SCR's new artistic director Marc Masterson (and all taking place within Ralph Funicello's beautiful, inviting set), the extremely funny ELEMENO PEA cracks wise like an intelligent TV sitcom—from its snappy back-and-forth dialogue to its slightly exaggeratEd Mannerisms. And like sitcoms, Metzler has even made room in her play for a couple of scene-stealing (or rather scenery-chewing) male caricatures—that drop by armed with delightfully sassy lines—in the form of Simone's super-rich yet super-unemployed older boyfriend Ethan (Jamison Jones, rockin' the "I'm on a boat, bitches!" look) and the Kells' outspoken head groundskeeper Jos-B (the hilarious Jonathan Nichols). While inches away from being uncomfortable stereotypes, both male characters provide needed levity in scenes where the women divert from the comedy themselves.
While it feels like a very polished fifth draft of what could easily be a superb finished play (and, really, it is about plus/minus ten pages there), the comedy is as bitingly sarcastic as it is wonderfully human. And more importantly, the play—which unfolds in real time—is refreshingly of-the-moment, making it quite entertaining and approachable to contemporary audiences (even those who normally don't go to plays) no matter where someone stands in the economic spectrum.
While ELEMENO PEA's initial draw may be Devon's priceless (ha ha), expletive-heavy reactions to the staggering display of wealth around her, its most riveting sequence is when Michaela and Devon are finally left alone to spar with each other in a deliciously wicked tug-of-war for Simone's attention. Michaela wants Devon to leave so Simone can focus fully on the crisis at hand; Devon wants nothing more than to stay by her sister's side and watch all the scandal unfold. Much like most of our culture, there's an innate pleasure in seeing the privileged fall from grace—and, here, Devon is our imbedded, nosy TMZ reporter.
The ensemble cast is pretty terrific. Lora and Beck have great chemistry and make for believable siblings, espousing dialogue that disguises judgments within declarations of concern. Beck—who originated this role in the play's Louisville debut—nails the snark needed in this play perfectly. Once Lenk comes in, the trio of ladies play off each other really well and even highlight each other. Nichols, for his brief part, kills in every scene he's in. And despite the fact that Ethan's presence—with the character's nearly grating speeches and forced abbreviations—is sometimes on the brink of overstaying its welcome, the actor playing him really milks his scenes with great gusto. Jones, for lack of better phrasing, plays a really great d*****bag.
I won't spoil things by revealing the source and meaning of the play's title (it's also one of the play's weakest reveals, frankly), but I will say that it plays on the idea of hushed secrets hidden behind the facades we create. These facades could be our wardrobe, the houses we live in, the lifestyles we've surrendered to, or even the words and emotions we dispel to shield our truths from the world. More than anything, ELEMENO PEA—with its sitcom-ready scenario that should really be snapped up by a network pronto—shines a not-so-flattering light on the livestyles of the rich and spoiled. But in the end, for Metzler, it turns out that not one particular tax bracket necessarily has the monopoly on behaving inappropriately.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR. From top: Devon (Cassie Beck, left) and Simone (Melanie Lora) make a request with groundskeeper Jos-B (Jonathan Nichols); Simone tries to comfort her boss Michaela (Katrina Lenk, foreground); Trustfund guy Ethan (Jamison Jones) romances girlfriend Simone with flowers.
Performances of ELEMENO PEA continue at South Coast Repertory through February 26, 2012. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights and 8:00 p.m. on Thursday - Saturday nights. Matinees start at 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Contains strong language. A Post-Show Discussion will be held with members of the cast on Tuesday, February 14.
Tickets, priced from $20 to $68, can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.