‘Elemeno Pea’ Digs Into Life’s Elementary Perplexities

When Simone (Robin Abramson, L) takes a job as personal assistant to super-wealthy Michaela (Kimberly Parker Green), she must assist with some very personal affairs.

When Simone (Robin Abramson, L) takes a job as personal assistant to super-wealthy Michaela (Kimberly Parker Green), Simone must assist with some very personal affairs.

When I went to see Elemeno Pea at City Theatre, what I expected was a biting satire on the wealth and class divisions in our society. That’s how it was billed. The company’s website calls the play “a ‘have and have-nots’ comedy,” and I went in fearing the worst.

Certainly, disparities of wealth and class are issues worth dealing with. But they have been dealt with, wittily and incisively, by such talents as Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, and many more. The upper classes have been skewered so skillfully and so often by writers that you begin to think you know what’s coming. And given that Elemeno Pea, by the Brooklyn-based playwright Molly Smith Metzler, received mixed reviews when it was staged in other cities during the past few years … well, all I hoped for was that this biting satire wouldn’t bite too much, in the sense of being just another trite bite at the upper-crust pie.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Apparently Metzler has tweaked and tightened Elemeno Pea since it opened (at a new-play festival in Louisville) in 2011. City Theatre’s artistic director, Tracy Brigden, has gotten the upgraded version to click. Better yet, it fires on more cylinders than I expected.

More than Rich vs. Poor, It’s Everybody vs. Everything

Although the play’s setup pits the obscenely wealthy against the suffering drudges, that’s not the only point of seriocomic contention. There turn out to be other games in progress: love games, male-female power games, and the perpetual inner challenge of balancing self-interest with care for those close to us.

The fact that these games are played out across rich/poor lines becomes secondary. (Or at least it did for me.) So, too, does the fact that the three central characters are all women whose complexities and perplexities are explored in some detail, while the two male characters are essentially one-dimensional buffoons.

Filing out of our seats after the play, I asked my theater-going friend for his snap judgment of Elemeno Pea. He cracked a big grin (he’s a big guy) and said, “Estrogen-heavy.” But hey, I’m a guy, and the play had me hooked.

Oh, the places we'll go! Ethan (Anthony Comis, R) has inherited a magic carpet and he'd love to take Simone for a ride.

Oh, the places we’ll go! Ethan (Anthony Comis, R) has inherited a magic carpet and he’d love to take Simone for a ride.

If Elemeno Pea were a movie, it would have a good long run at someplace like the Manor in Squirrel Hill. The audience would be mostly women, but the boyfriends and husbands who tagged along wouldn’t be sorry they had come. Let’s take a quick look at the goods as they are presented on stage.

The Setup, The Bitch …

The scene is the immaculately clean and lavishly stocked guest house of a summer estate on Martha’s Vineyard. Enter two sisters: Simone (Robin Abramson), who has landed a de luxe job as the live-in personal assistant to the wife of the wealthy estate owner—and her older sibling Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss), who is visiting.

Devon isn’t doing so well. Having crashed and burned her career as a social worker, she is living back at home in mom’s basement in Buffalo while toiling in the kitchen at, umm, an Olive Garden.

The visit is supposed to be a long-overdue sisterly bonding experience, but Devon is instantly jealous of—and skeptical about—Simone’s good fortune. Sniping ensues, then escalates to the verge of open warfare when wealthy wife Michaela (Kimberly Parker Green) unexpectedly returns home. It seems that “The Bitch,” as some of the hired help call her, was on her way out of town when the top dog—her tycoon husband—suddenly ordered her to vacate the passenger seat of the Jaguar and take a hike.

Tensions are simmering on multiple fronts. Devon really should go somewhere to allow her sister to help Michaela deal with this marital crisis, but of course she doesn’t. She considers it a spectacle not to be missed, and, moreover, the spectacle is complicated by the comings and goings of the two buffoons mentioned earlier.

One is Simone’s new boyfriend Ethan (Anthony Comis), who wears his ostentatiously preppy garb as breezily as he wears the inherited wealth that has absolved him of the necessity to work at anything. The other is the Puerto Rican handyman Jos-B (played by Tony Chiroldes and pronounced Hose-B—he was given the name to distinguish him from José, another servant of Hispanic American descent). Jos-B wears his irritation at his lowly position not only on his sleeve but also on his face and in his voice; there’s nowhere he doesn’t wear it.

… and The Sitch

This might be as close to wealth as Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss, L) is gonna get.

Will this be as close to wealth as Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss, L) is gonna get?

So there you have the situation (or “the sitch,” as Ethan calls it, in his ingratiating habit of breezily abbreviating polysyllabic words to avoid the effort of saying them whole). To describe the situation in un-PC, hetero-normative terms, you have your three dames hissing and spitting like cats at their various vexations, while the two dudes dunder into the fray from opposite socioeconomic directions. And whoa, it transpires that there are sub-plots and sub-sub-plots bubbling beneath the surface …

Which we won’t go into because (a) they are complicated and (b) no spoilers, please.

Elemeno Pea is neither a perfect play nor transcendently profound. But if transcendent profundity is what you seek, perhaps you should try a performance of Hamlet. And while Elemeno Pea does not do a perfect job of weaving together all of the plot threads seamlessly—it devolves occasionally into “what, what, wait a minute …?”—these threads add up to a nicer package than one will find in many a work on stage or screen.

I chuckled. I was touched. Much of the time, I was on the edge of my seat. And if you, dear readers, should be inspired to head home from the theater debating and discussing how the forces of power play out in our society, I would say you definitely got your money’s worth.

Ticket Info

Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea runs through March 22 at City Theatre. For performance times and tickets, visit City or call 412-431-CITY. 1300 Bingham St., South Side.

Photos courtesy of Kristi Jan Hoover and City Theatre.

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based writer and editor, covers theater for Entertainment Central.


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