The rich are different from you and me, or so F. Scott Fitzgerald famously told us at the opening of his short story “The Rich Boy.” It’s an assessment that could just as easily open the action of the new play Elemeno Pea, currently at Horizon Theatre through April 13.
Simone (Cynthia D. Barker) is the personal assistant of outrageously wealthy trophy wife Michaela (Cara Mantella). When Michaela and her husband are away from their vacation estate on Nantucket, Simone invites her sister Devon (Tiffany Porter) for the weekend. When Michaela unexpectedly returns after a fight with her husband, it’s the haves vs. have-nots as Devon isn’t as willing as Simone to cover the realities of her working-class roots in order to play nice with the manifoldly presumptuous superwealthy.
Playwright Molly Smith Metzler’s script keeps things at a broad, sitcom level pitch, and director Heidi Cline McKerley cranks it up to 11. Still, events unfold at a surprisingly absorbing pace, and though characters and issues are often presented with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, there’s enough to hold our interest.
The show’s greatest strength is its cast, especially Porter as the plain-spoken, caustic realist Devon. She’s gob-smacked by the wealth that Simone has access to, but also well aware of the strings attached and the costs of living among the super-rich, and she’s wary of Simone’s affectations of being a guest rather than the help. Porter is energetic and likeable, but then can become prickly and acerbic in a moment: in either mode, she’s alert, funny and a pleasure to watch.
Barker as Simone brings out that character’s eager-to-please, self-effacing nature: we can see early on there’s going to be trouble, both between the sisters and in that setting. Still, everything’s writ large and in big bold letters. When Mantella as Michaela explains her fight with her husband, she both figuratively and literally jumps on the couch. Still, Mantella manages to reveal the character’s blind spots and weaknesses as the plot turns, as do the tables, and the character suddenly finds herself in a vulnerable position, with her longtime staff suddenly her equals.
Metzler keeps the focus on the women in the story, but Tony Guerrero and Adam Fristoe make strong appearances in supporting roles as, respectively, Michaela’s long-suffering handyman (she calls him Jos-B because there’s already another José on staff) and as family friend Ethan, the preppy jerk to end all preppy jerks.
The set by sisters Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, who often design for the Horizon, is as stunning and detailed as ever, but this one, a living room in a Nantucket guest house on a large estate, is especially compelling in the way it seems to both occupy the stage and also reach out and embrace the audience. For better or worse, you’ll feel like you’re right inside that pretty but toxic Nantucket guest house.
Elemeno Pea has everything in the right place situationally and functions smoothly in terms of character and pacing.
It may not end up among every viewer’s most memorable or moving experiences at the theater, but it certainly works as a comedy.