Elemeno Pea takes on class war

Class warfare: Ron Menzel, Sun Mee Chomet, Laurine Price, and Grace Gealey
Rich Ryan

At two points in Elemeno Pea, Molly Smith Metzler's modern comedy of manners set amid the upper-upper crust and the folks who serve them, blue-collar-ish Devon and trophy wife Michaela share a few moments alone, on a couch in the swanky guest house at a Martha's Vineyard estate.

In the first, Michaela is playing the disinterested host, perfectly poised as she asks questions even as she ignores all the answers. In the second, about an hour later, the two just sit there, shell-shocked and silent. Their silence, however, carries more honesty than hour upon hour of senseless blather.

Metzler plays with our expectations of class and status from the beginning to the end of the play, avoiding simplistic platitudes in a story that uncovers a deep darkness at the heart of the American dream. In the end, I don't think she pushes it far enough. The play is, at turns, funny, dramatic, and heartbreaking. More intensity would serve the story.

At the heart are two sisters. Devon is a social worker who has bottomed out and is living in her mother's basement in Buffalo, working at a nearby Olive Garden. Simone has parlayed her Ivy League degree into a post as Michaela's personal assistant, keeping the woman's busy life and manic moods in order.

It's Labor Day weekend, and the estate is being readied for the winter. Simone has invited her sister up for a weekend — partially as a belated birthday present but also, one thinks, to show off a bit. Living among the idle rich has certainly rubbed off on her. She has even found a boyfriend, Ethan, who makes Bertie Wooster look like an intellectual giant and a dedicated man of industry.

Devon is a bit shocked by her sister's behavior, especially as she seems to miss what others think. We see this with "Jos-B," (there was already a Jose on staff, apparently), the gardener-handyman who absolutely hates Michaela.

With the pieces in place, the situation just needs a bit of a nudge. That comes when the unseen husband of Michaela essentially declares their marriage to be over. The situation spirals out of control from there, with plans and counter-plans, panic attacks, and tears. All the while, Devon watches in horror, unable to fathom what is going on around her.

Devon is our window into this world, but she is more than a mere observer. As it turns out, her assumptions ... well, you know the old saying. In the two sisters, Metzler is able to explore issues of class without resorting to simple slogans. Sun Mee Chomet (Devon) and Grace Gealey (Simone) have nice chemistry as the sisters, able to share a lot about their past conflicts and connections through glances, gestures, and tones of voice. Laurine Price does good work with Michaela as well, allowing us to see that there's a lot more to the character than first meets the eye.

Mark Valdez, whose previous work with Mixed Blood includes last year's Learn to Be Latina, directs with a firm hand, but I was left wondering if there was more lurking in the heart of the story that didn't make it onto the stage. Either due to the script or the production, the story didn't all click, and it wasn't as entertaining, or insightful, as I wanted it to be.

That may be because the ramifications of a key revelation near the end of the play — one that sets most of the story in a new light — aren't fully explored. Michaela made a brutal, frightening decision the year before (the other characters stay mum about it, as they've signed a nondisclosure agreement) that horrifies Devon to the core. Michaela's reasons alter our perceptions somewhat, but I don't think it gets her off the hook, and I don't think that Devon's character would have been as accepting as written. It's a failure of nerve that keeps the show at the good, but frustrating, level.

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