It's almost a rule of screwball comedy: The person you can't stand at first inevitably grows into a confidant or even a mate.
Though they didn't become quite that friendly, playwright Molly Smith Metzler and one Martha's Vineyard trophy wife got close enough for comfort — and so simpatico that the woman became a major character in Smith Metzler's play, "Elemeno Pea," which opens Feb. 3 at South Coast Repertory.
Smith Metzler, a middle-class native of sleepy Kingston, N.Y., had traveled to the Vineyard on a post-collegiate lark in the early aughts with the vague notion of gathering material for a newly hatched playwriting career. What she did mostly was wait tables at the exclusive enclave's main yacht club — and observe.
"Everyone at the club hated her," Smith Metzler recalls of the woman on whom she based the character of Michaela, the downward-spiraling diva who drives much of the comic action in "Elemeno Pea." "When she would come in, it was like, 'Oh God, she's coming.' She was so demanding."
Soon enough, though, Smith Metzler began to see the woman's high-maintenance behavior in context. "I learned that she had recently married into the club; it was her first summer there," Smith Metzler says. "She was tolerated, but not taken seriously. I saw her alone a lot that summer."
Before long, she got to know this rich untouchable.
"I baby-sat for her a couple times, and when I saw her life up close and personal, I felt very sympathetic," Smith Metzler says. "I feel like I had never seen a sadder person in my life than this woman, who had more money than God."
Indeed, her wealth as much as her sadness stuck with Smith Metzler. One bracing introduction in particular became the basis for a class-shock double take in "Elemeno Pea." As Smith Metzler recalls, "I really did stand in her house one time and think I was in the most amazing, huge house I've ever been in — and it was the guesthouse."
But if her writer's eye was peeled for such clarifying moments, these aren't what struck her initially.
"I was compelled by the Vineyard at first. It's fun," says Smith Metzler, 33, who now lives in Brooklyn Heights with her husband, Colin McKenna, also a playwright. "They eat lobster, they drink gimlets, they go out on their boats, they're very beautiful, they're very tan. And they liked me; I felt very welcome and invited to the party. I think I was a little seduced."
In "Elemeno Pea," she dramatizes both the seduction and the repulsion as Simone, personal assistant to the exacting, increasingly needy Michaela, receives a friendly visit from her middle-class sister, Devon (who gets to reenact Smith Metzler's "This is the guesthouse?" moment). Also on hand are Simone's swaggering, idle-rich boyfriend, Ethan, and a dryly impertinent handyman, Jos-B, so-called to distinguish him from another "José."
The play, in short, represents Smith Metzler's distillation of a season's worth of observations into 100 unblinking minutes of real-time comedy. The single-minded form as much as the class-conscious content is what sold director Marc Masterson.
"One of the things that's so impressive about this play is the unity of time, place and action," says Masterson, South Coast's artistic director, who first programmed "Elemeno Pea" in his final season with Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays last June (though he didn't direct it there). "I read hundreds of new scripts a year, and everybody is writing fragmented stories where the timeline jumps around. So it's refreshing to read a young writer who's able to deliver a contemporary comedy that pays attention to Aristotelian rules. You go on this ride, and it takes you to a conclusion in a very satisfying way."
Smith Metzler's career has been on something of a roller coaster of late as well. Armed with a handful of plays and a degree from Juilliard, she's already hit some dizzying heights — and one nauseating low. Rehearsals in Costa Mesa for "Elemeno Pea" began just weeks after her off-Broadway debut, "Close Up Space," a quirky comedy-drama starring David Hyde Pierce and Rosie Perez, opened to some of the season's harshest reviews. Critics found the play, which runs through Jan. 29 at Manhattan Theatre Club, to be strained, implausible and, worst of all, unfunny.
"I wish I had learned the lessons I learned on that show in a black box in North Dakota," Smith Metzler deadpans about her high-profile New York flop. But with commissions for new work from South Coast, Actors Theatre of Louisville and Manhattan Theatre Club, Smith Metzler doesn't have time to wallow. Nor does she have the inclination.
"I was shocked by the response, but I'm not stopped," she says.
Masterson is especially struck by her determination. After all, a female playwright with a sharp, contemporary comic voice could probably find more lucrative employment writing for, say, "2 Broke Girls."
"She plans on continuing to write plays for the foreseeable future," Masterson says. "Hollywood may come calling — in fact, it already has. But I hope that her promise as a playwright can be recognized and encouraged. Otherwise she will make a quick exit."
Years ago, as that pivotal season on the Vineyard wound down, Smith Metzler faced a similarly momentous crossroads.
"I think I could have been a trophy wife myself," Smith Metzler says. "If that had become my goal instead of becoming a writer, I think I could easily have gone in that direction. I think I could have been plucked from the chorus line into Michaela world."
She gave up that glide path for a bumpier road — she went back home to Kingston, and eventually on to graduate school for playwriting. A taste for hard-earned triumphs over easy pickings still guides her.
"I love the harder way," Smith Metzler says. "I love that writing plays is hard; I love that it's punishing; I love that I'll never make a living at it. I don't want to be a screenwriter. I might write screenplays to pay my rent — most playwrights do — but I am compelled by how hard this art is. I love the challenge of it."