Blue collar meets upper crust in of Elemeno Pea, Molly Smith Metzler’s hilarious, perceptive culture clash comedy, now making its West Coast debut at South Coast Repertory.

Homes don’t get any more palatial than the Martha’s Vineyard estate where time-clock-punching Olive Garden employee Devon (Cassie Beck) has just arrived for a weekend visit with younger sister Simone (Melanie Lora), whose job as personal assistant to a gazillionaire’s second wife has allowed her to feel part of that elite 1% we hear so much about these days.

Then again Simone has every reason to consider herself more than a mere salaried worker, such as her very own carriage house to live in along with countless other perks, and if you’re going to earn a salary, then $100,000 a year (give or take a few thousands) is a nice one indeed.

Devon is initially astounded by the wealth that surrounds her sister (all Simone has to do is say “Disco, play ‘Jenny From The Block’ by Jennifer Lopez” and the JLo tune will start playing on the surround-sound stereo), then horrified by the changes it has wrought in younger sis, who seems to have abandoned her dreams of being a successful novelist for a Lifestyle Of The Rich And Superficial, one that includes a romantic relationship with her employer’s husband’s best friend.

How, Devon wonders, could Simone have abandoned her family this past Christmas to be at rich-bitch Michaela’s beck and call? Then again, Simone did use up all her vacation time moving Devon from Buffalo to San Francisco and back again three months later when her younger sibling’s romantic relationship crashed and burned.

Elemono Pea’s initial half-hour or so also introduces us to estate caretaker Jos-B (Jonathan Nichols), so nicknamed because his employers already had a Jos-A (José, get it) at their beck and call, and if Simone can say nothing but good about the lady of the estate, Jos-B wastes no opportunity to express his dislike of her in the rudest and crudest of English and Spanish terms. While Simone is enjoying every minute of the high life she’s been living, Jos-B can tell you to the hour just how many hellish years he’s been taking Michaela’s mierda.

Then, about a third of the way through Elemeno Pea’s real-time ninety minutes, who should arrive but the mistress of the manor herself (Katrina Lenk) in panic mode, having been abandoned on the highway by husband Peter following a marital tiff. Naturally, egocentric Michaela wants Simone all to herself, and will do anything in her checkbook’s power to get Devon packed and on her way back to Buffalo, even if she’s only just arrived.

Not too long after, Simone’s salmon-slacked boyfriend Ethan (Jamison Jones) shows up too to complete Elemeno Pea’s five-character mix.

To reveal any more of what playwright Metzler has in store for her audience would be to spoil numerous surprises, and a good deal of Elemono Pea’s considerable appeal derives from not knowing what’s coming next, that and experiencing the heady feeling of being flies on some very elegant walls indeed.

Elemeno Pea represents Marc Masterson’s first directorial assignment since becoming South Coast Rep’s new Artistic Director, the recent Kentucky-to-Costa Mesa transplant eliciting pitch-performances from his superb cast. (Kudos to Masterson for not seeing the “need” to cast out of New York that his Los Angeles counterpart at Center Theatre Group has expressed, as if SoCal didn’t already have the richest talent pool in the country.)

It’s Elemono Pea’s stellar trio of leading ladies that give Metlzer’s comedy its richness along with its eleventh-hour moments of depth, and Beck, Lora, and Lenk simply couldn’t be better. Beck, who originated the role of Devon earlier this year in its Actors Theatre Of Louisville World Premiere, creates an absolutely authentic blue-collar chick who’s not about to take her younger sister’s transformation into Stepford Personal Assistant lying down. Lora is as perfectly cast here as she was in SCR’s Collected Stories, her girl-next-door persona endearing us to Simone even as we recoil at just how much she is at Michaela’s capricious beck and call. Lenk gets the juiciest role of all, one she plays to absolute perfection, and never more so than when gifted with a monolog any actress would give her eyetooth to deliver—and which Lenk does to potent effect. These three women may not change all that much over Elemeno Pea’s hour-and-a-half, but to Metzler’s (and the three talented actresses’) credit, the Devon, Simone, and Michaela whom we get to know end up refreshingly different from our first impressions of them.

Elemeno Pea’s two male characters are mostly there to provide comic relief, and both Nichols and Jones do that quite splendidly, the former dispensing wisecracks and insults with razor-sharp timing, the latter having a delicious field day with metrosexual Ethan. (He’s not gay, he’s just filthy rich.)

Scenic designer Ralph Funicello has created a sumptuous, spacious Vineyard guest house living room in shades of bone, with an ocean-view terrace that stretches nearly the full width of the Segerstrom stage, Lap Chi Chu’s expert lighting making it look even more elegant. Cricket S. Myer’s topnotch sound design (including a hilarious bit of Sarah McLaughlan) is aided this time by cast members who make us believe that the glass doors separating indoors from outdoors truly are soundproof. David Kay Mickelsen’s five costumes fit each character’s personal choices to a T, from Devon’s blue jeans and hoodie to Simone’s Lily Pulitzer frock to Michaela’s (one-)shoulder-baring top to Ethan’s yachtwear to Jos-B’s handyman duds. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.  Oanh Nguyen is assistant director, Joshua Marchesi production manager, and Jamie A. Tucker stage manager.

It takes a particularly talented playwright to tell a complete and satisfying story in about ninety minutes of real time. That Metzler manages to do this, and in a way that allows her characters to develop in often surprising ways, makes Elemeno Pea one of the tastiest of February treats.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
February 7, 2012
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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