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Theater review: 'Elemeno Pea' at South Coast Repertory

February 5, 2012 |  4:55 pm

Elemeno pea 1

 The old upstairs-downstairs distinction (all the rage again with “Downton Abbey”) is given a brief holiday in “Elemeno Pea,” a comedy by Molly Smith Metzler, in which the hired help has more or less taken over a lavish Martha’s Vineyard estate at the end of the summer season. Time, in other words, to break the good stuff out of the liquor cabinet.

The play, now receiving its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory, was originally produced at the 2011 Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. SCR artistic director Marc Masterson, who was still the head of ATL when “Elemeno Pea” had its world premiere, makes his Southern California directorial debut with this often amusing morality tale about the compromising consequences of money’s seductive power.

Masterson’s production isn’t quite able to mask the unsettledness of Metzler’s mix of broad caricature and genuine human concern. The playwright wants to have her sitcom high jinks and her psychological interest too. But the staging finds pockets of sympathy amid all the exaggerated mockery, and it’s always a nice surprise when the least likable character turns out to be more than just a villainous twit.

Elemeno pea 2Simone (Melanie Lora) is a high-end assistant for an ultra-wealthy couple. An Ivy League-educated writer, she has temporarily given up her own dreams to dance attendance on employers whose every whim is the equivalent of a royal command. For her sacrifice, she’s generously compensated, with the added benefit of living in such fantastic splendor that all she has to do is call out the title of a song and it instantly starts playing.

Her sister Devon (Cassie Beck), who has come for the weekend from Buffalo, where she’s living again with her mother after a disastrous romance, can’t get over the lavishness of Simone’s setup (Ralph Funicello’s set gets the oceanfront architecture, if not the design details, just right). But she’s troubled by Simone’s delusion that this beachfront bonanza somehow belongs to her. As blunt as she is perceptive, Devon tries to get Simone to see that though she may be living in a Jennifer Lopez movie, she’s not actually J.Lo.

The weekend’s rocky start gets even rockier once Simone’s boss, Michaela (Katrina Lenk), unexpectedly returns in high trophy-wife dudgeon after a momentous marital spat. Overwhelmed by this crisis and not too pleased about having an occasionally foul-mouthed Olive Garden food runner in her living room, Michaela tries to bribe Devon into leaving early. But Devon, who forms a kind of working-class alliance with Jos-B (Jonathan Nichols), the caretaker of the grounds who’s been rechristened by Michaela because there’s already someone on staff name Jose, decides it’s in her sister’s best interest for her to stick around.

The first half of “Elemeno Pea,” named for the singsong way children have of reciting the alphabet, a talisman of Devon and Simone’s sibling bond, is full of riotous moments. But the humor starts to lose its velocity at the midway point, when confidence in the playwright’s ability to drive her comedy to a satisfying finish begins to wane.

Metzler knows how to get a rise out of an audience. But her shtick isn’t always subtle, and it’s increasingly hard to take anything too seriously.

The character of Ethan (Jamison Jones) illustrates the problem. A wealthy Martha’s Vineyard denizen who dresses in the salmon-colored pants so favored by the island’s golfing swells, he comes off as such a ludicrous toff that it’s impossible to grant him any credibility as a love interest for Simone. If there’s a battle for her soul going on between the blandishments of easy street and the rough path of integrity, it shouldn’t be much of a contest. Even without a yacht, Devon should clobber these nincompoops.

Lora and Beck play up the stark contrasts between the sisters in ways that are punchy but not unbelievable. And thanks to costume designer David Kay Mickelsen, their clothes tell the story of their characters — with Simone dressing to please others and Devon dressing to please no one but herself.

But it’s Lenk’s portrayal of Michaela that’s the most original aspect of Masterson’s production. A tyrant who goes berserk at the sight of white flowers after Labor Day, she reveals herself to be more than just a superficial monster. Metzler maps out a clumsy plot line for Michaela’s character, but Lenk delivers it with a somber dignity that the play only partly deserves.

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-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com 

"Elemeno Pea," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 26. $20-$68
(714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Photos: Upper: Melanie Lora and Cassie Beck. Lower: Katrina Lenk and Jamison Jones. Credit: Ben Horak/South Coast Repertory

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