Marc Masterson, South Coast Repertory's artistic director, took the reins of the heralded theater in June 2011. Although he's been in the exalted chair for eight months, it's fair to say Molly Smith Metzler's Elemeno Pea is his official coming-out party, since it's the first play he has directed at SCR.
And what can an observer draw from Masterson's character with this play? Well, he obviously has some serious self-esteem issues. Why else would he choose a play that is impossible to not like? Metzler's comedy, which Masterson directed in its world premiere at his previous gig at the Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, is a crackling, electrifying affair, 96 minutes of nonstop entertainment. It's hilarious and serious, often in the same moment. And while its setting—a ridiculously well-appointed guest house on a posh estate in Martha's Vineyard—isn't too far removed from the well-heeled environs of many of the East Coast-centric plays SCR has produced over its long, illustrious history, the words spewing from these highly articulate characters' mouths ring with a decidedly uncommon edge.
Hell, someone actually says cunt. As I said, it's impossible to not like.
Elemeno Pea at South Coast Repertory's Segerstrom Stage, www.scr.org. Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30
Masterson directs Metzler's work with panache and pedal-to-the-metal intensity; there isn't a dull moment. And while Metzler's piece isn't a Great Play in terms of issues, big ideas, scope or gravitas, it's an eminently entertaining one that tugs on the heartstrings while gnawing on the funny bone.
Thirtysomething Devon lives in her mother's basement in Buffalo, New York. She's lower management at an Olive Garden in that constantly maligned, urban shit-hole and reeling from the effects of leaving her life's passion of social work for a man who turned out to be a porn addict. Her sister, Simone, is an aspiring novelist who has landed a choice gig: as the keeper of Michaela, the wildly erratic wife of a corporate bigwig (his advertising company was responsible for Budweiser's talking frogs). Simone is both Michaela's executive assistant and emotional caretaker, and though she's hired help, the job comes with a slew of perks, including full access to the opulent guest house off-season, an opportunity that allows her to invite her struggling sister for a girls' weekend.
They spend a few minutes catching up, drinking high-end Scotch and squabbling about Simone's decision to stay in New York City the previous Christmas instead of coming home for the holiday. But when Michaela shows up in a frenzy—she and her husband left earlier in the day to board the private jet to the Big Apple, but she was unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road on the way and forced to run 6 miles to the estate—the sister circle is irrevocably broken.
All Devon wants is to do is hang out with her younger sister. All the high-maintenance, emotionally flurried Michaela wants is for her to leave. And while Simone is glad her sister's in town, it's clear she's more concerned with placating her train wreck of an employer and spending time with her fiance, the insufferably pompous Ethan.
The insults, sarcastic barbs and witty bon mots fly, but Metzler manages to make it easy to deeply care about the play's polar opposites: the suffering, integrity-laden Devon, and the spoiled-rotten harridan who employs her sister. The others, including the estate's maintenance man, Jos-B (the other Latino who works there is Jos-A; yes, class conflict, or at least class subjugation, is a thread throughout the play), mainly orbit around the conflict between these two strong-willed characters, but the actors imbue their characters with such distinct personalities that they add considerable spice to the roiling stew that threatens to boil over at any moment.
The five-person cast—that bickers, cajoles, bullshits and preens on Ralph Funicello's eye-popping set—is definitely up to the task. It's hard to take your eyes off Cassie Beck's intensely developed Devon; even when she's not speaking, her reactions to the chaos her sister has enveloped herself in are a marvel to watch. Jamison Jones nails the ingratiatingly unctuous Ethan, and Katrina Lenk manages to imbue her shrieking woman of married privilege, Michaela, with an aching humanity. Melanie Lora, as Simone, and Jonathan Nichols, as Jos-B, are more devices than fully fleshed-out characters, but both actors wring comic gold from their relatively flat roles.
So what's the play really about? It may boil down to the dangers of not following one's passion. Each of the three women has abandoned, or is on the verge of giving up, the one thing that gave her life meaning—all for the sake of a man. It's too late for two of them, and the inability of the third to sense the damage that those choices have wrought on her two compatriots—and that she may be embarking on a similar road to self-destruction—gives the play a sobering subtext.
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While Metzler's conclusion seems a bit tacked-on, and while none of the characters' individual arcs fundamentally changes over the course of the play, it's her resistance to tying everything up with a feel-good ribbon that makes Elemeno Pea distinctive. It's a hilarious ride that may, ultimately, not go very far, but it's also an exhilarating one that is far more serious than it lets on most of time.
So, Mr. Masterson: Welcome to South Coast Repertory. Your first play is the bomb-dot-com and, by extension, so are you. More fare in the vein of Elemno Pea, and this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. You on Facebook?
This review appeared in print as "Marc of Promise: Elemeno Pea shows that South Coast Rep's new artistic director will fit in just fine."