Molly Smith Metzler’s “Elemeno Pea” takes its name from a smashup of letters at the center of the alphabet. But the ABCs of this appealing work also encompass a collision in the middle: a central character in whom Cruella de Vil implausibly morphs into the proverbial "Poor Little Rich Girl." The idea is to turn the comedy on a dime from scathing satire of billionaires and their acolytes to a mood of reflection and poignancy. But that is one squealing maneuver to make in a small space.
Metzler’s play, being given a crack area premiere by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre (through Nov. 19), debuted in 2011 at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays and has been produced at several regional theaters since. Evidently the dramatist — an alumnus of Boston University’s graduate playwriting program who has written for the Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black” and is a writer/producer on the Showtime series “Shameless” — perceived a problem and has substantially reworked the piece for this production. She hasn’t resolved the difficulty, but the play is otherwise well put together, sharply observed and as scathing as “Tartuffe.”
The setting is the splendid guesthouse of a billionaire’s seaside estate on Martha’s Vineyard at the end of the season. (Kudos to set designer Jeffrey Petersen for shoehorning such a tasteful and towering palace, replete with cool colors and beach art, into the BPT’s intimate rear theater.) Simone, who is personal assistant to the property owner’s trophy wife, has been granted permission to invite her sister for a girls’ weekend in the land of the 1 percent. And it soon becomes clear that, whereas Lilly Pulitzer-clad Simone has drunk the Kool-Aid of affluence and privilege, down-on-her-luck Devon, who shows up on island garbed in jean shorts and attitude, is having none of it.
Initially awestruck by the surroundings, Devon congratulates her sister on having somehow landed “in a freakin’ J-Lo movie.” (Whereupon Simone verbally cues the sound system to play J-Lo.) Soon, however, Devon starts to wonder whether pod people have taken over Simone’s Yale-educated brain, filling it with a love of “perks and bennies” and salmon-colored trousers, not to mention a bubbly hauteur when it comes to handling the servants. Standing in for that army is a Latino jack-of-all-trades dubbed Jos-B since there was already a José on the staff.
The estate is called Island Haven, though upon the arrival of Simone’s tyrannical if glamorous employer, Michaela, it turns into anything but. Michaela arrives distraught, pounding on the glass door of the guesthouse, fanning her underarms, demanding water, as she has just run halfway across the island upon being ejected from her mercurial husband’s Jaguar. Divorce threats hang in the air, but first things first — before she can catch her breath, the lady of the house is berating not only Simone, but also the florist who supplied the lavish arrangement of white hydrangeas on the mantel — apparently a color atrocity after Labor Day.
As a cautionary satire of the rich and selfish, “Elemeno Pea” is pretty terrific — and, in the age of Trump, probably not all that exaggerated. Simone, played with enthused naiveté by the perennially perky Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, may have been bought hook, line and wardrobe by her affluent employer — whom she regards less as a hard-nosed, demanding mistress than as a friend and confidante, for whom she should surrender her weekend, probably her life, without hesitation. There are, after all, all those “perks and bennies,” which in Simone’s case include a hot romance with a middle-aged yacht club Ken doll who’s more inane than Michaela is smolderingly shrewish.
Of course, we see all this through the eyes of Devon, who, in Amanda Collins’ cleverly balanced performance, is both appalled and fascinated. As events progress as if she were invisible as well as unimportant, Collins’ character reclines in the background, her relaxed but expressive face flickering between distress at her sibling’s many betrayals and enjoyment of the grotesquerie. After all, how many crime-scene witnesses get to put their feet up and enjoy a crystal flute of Schramsberg?
But, the play implies, we all have our trials (and, possibly, our prices). The playwright has said in interviews that the germ of “Elemeno Pea” was a summer spent waiting tables on the Vineyard, only to discover that some of the moneyed folks she served were very sad people. But when — having spent two-thirds of her play portraying Michaela as a nervous, aggressive bitch on wheels — Metzler cracks open the shell to expose not only desperation but deep, oozing ache, it’s too little too late. We are meant, along with Devon, to regard Michaela as a sad casualty of her difficult marriage. But that’s like blaming Louis XVI for Marie Antoinette.
So, the play fails to turn the corner that would earn its ruminative, melancholy ending. It nonetheless exposes not only the callowness, but also the seductiveness of privilege. And in director Shana Gozansky’s frantically tongue-in-cheek production, it’s certainly funny. This applies not only to the onstage action, but also to the frenetic goings on, often involving cell phones but no sound, sometimes escalating to weapon-wielding savagery, viewed through the glass door of the guesthouse.
As Michaela, incessantly flipping her hair while flexing her power, Samantha Richert is outrageous yet credible. And wielding a mix of dignity and defensiveness, she does what can be done to garner eleventh-hour sympathy for the woman. Barlow Adamson, as Simone’s cheerful swain in pink pants and aviator glasses, and Jaime Carrillo, as Jos-B, are more fortunate in that they are not required to develop a third dimension in a hurry. Adamson’s breezy-talking Ethan, a lightweight feather-smoother who speaks in silly abbreviations, is meant to be a ridiculous if somewhat snaky figure. And as Jos-B, Carrillo wraps up contempt in sycophancy like some poisoned present. No doubt Michaela would like to let him eat cake. But when he gets the chance, Jos-B crams it right back in her face – with swagger and a smile, giving both Devon and the audience someone to root for.
“Elemeno Pea” runs through Nov. 19 at Boston Playwright’s Theatre.