There’s a long tradition in American storytelling of asking audiences to gawk at the shallow goings-on of the ultra-rich. The tradition began in the 20s with the work of Edith Wharton, came into its own during the Depression (My Man Godfrey), found real traction in the Ronald Reagan 80s (Tom Wolfe’s hootingly funny Bonfire Of The Vanities), the oughts (the Coen brothers’ so-so Intolerable Cruelty). Not to mention TV: the prime time soaps (e.g., Dallas), the voyeuristic work of the late Dominick Dunne. The rich represent, arguably, the most examined and exhaustively mined demographic we own.
Molly Smith Metzler‘s rather cutesily entitled Elemeno Pea (at Mixed Blood Theatre through March 17) falls solidly into this tradition. The Kells, Peter and Michaela, have a penthouse in NYC, a winter cottage in Aspen, a house on the Riviera, a summer estate on Martha’s Vineyard featuring a main house, a guest residence (where the play takes place) and a carriage house. They sip $750 scotch, swig fancy wine directly from the bottle, drive Jaguars and Bentleys, play golf (of course), pay their personal assistants six figure salaries, wear salmon (i.e. pink) slacks and $300 dresses. It all left me breathless – and more than a little creeped out.
There’s a lot of plot in Elemeno Pea, and it’s interesting. Personal assistant Simone’s older sister Devon has arrived from Buffalo for a sisters weekend. Simone’s grasping employer Michaela (aka The Bitch) deals with her bizarre super-rich husband. Groundskeeper JosB (to distinguish him from José) puts in a refreshingly bilingual appearance. Simone’s happily/brutally honest boyfriend Ethan (he who wears the salmon slacks) shows up. And this is as much of the story as I intend to reveal.
My biggest issue with Mixed Blood’s Elemeno Pea is that the play too often struggles to be funny, and I don’t fully understand why. The writing is muscular and Metzler’s grasp of her characters’ plights is first rate. The cast is wonderful (more on this in a moment). Director Mark Valdez keeps the play crackling along nicely. The designers, working on a shoestring, have acquitted themselves extremely well. The lack of compelling comedy mystifies – but there it is.
So why see Elemeno Pea, if the story is so sit-comily derivative and on the whole less funny than it ought to be? Because there is something going on in this play, something truly original and compelling: the sisters. Frumpy frowzy Devon arrives in the Vineyard, squeals with delight to find herself drinking 30 year old scotch. But she soon discovers that her baby sister Simone is in way over her head and needs to be rescued. Devon rises to the challenge, goes mano a mano with the Bitch, finds new personal resources, effects changes in Simone. I can’t reveal how all this turns out, but it makes the play eminently worth seeing.
As Devon, Sun Mee Chomet carries the play, never letting up on the other characters. She refuses to be awed by all the wealth around her and conducts herself with a spunky new self-reliance. She has, despite her shortcomings (she’s ungrateful, foul-mouthed, brassy), genuine integrity and we love her for it. Of all the characters, Devon changes the most dramatically and Chomet plays all this beautifully and with building passion.
The other actors excel as well: Grace Gealey as the buttoned down Simone, realizing that her “sitch” (as the play calls it) is changing. “I like it here,” she avers. “I like what I am here,” and so makes a breath-takingly wrongheaded and entirely believable decision. Laurine Price as the astonishingly self-centered Michaela turns in a convincing and delightful performance. Brava. The two men, Pedro Bayon as JosB and Ron Menzel as the rich slacker Ethan delight as well. Valdez directs with a firm hand.
Elemeno Pea is not a perfect play, but its pleasures (due largely to the first rate cast) outweigh the deficits.
All right, I guess I need to complain that the cast/creative teams bios are not available on Mixed Blood’s website, despite the program’s assurance that they are. Hopefully, MB will fix this.
For more info about John Olive, please visit his website.