On Theater: Hilarity with class warfare at SCR

Don't be put off by the silliness of the title. South Coast Repertory's "Elemeno Pea" may be the funniest show you'll see all year, an outlandish treatise on class warfare that'll have you chuckling all the way home.

As the first SCR production mounted by its new artistic director, Marc Masterson — who staged the play in its Louisville, Ky., world premiere last year — "Elemeno Pea" is superbly rich in both the words of playwright Molly Smith Metzler and their delivery by an inspired cast.

The comedy springs from the situations of the upper and lower classes when they clash. The play could logically be titled "Topdog / Underdog," except that this title was already taken (by the drama in SCR's adjoining theater).

Metzler sets her running battle of wits in a palatial "guest house" on Martha's Vineyard off Massachusetts, where its primary character, Simone, works as a personal assistant to a millionaire's trophy wife and has invited Devon, her plain-spoken older sister from Buffalo, over for the weekend.

The caustic wordplay between the sisters sets up the frantic arrival of the lady of the house, Michaela, who's just been unceremoniously dumped and is understandably furious.

Stirring the cauldron of boiling adversity are two other characters, Simone's patrician boyfriend, Ethan, and the house handyman, known as Jos-B (they already have a Jose in their employ).

"Elemeno Pea" (the title springs from an alphabetical misunderstanding deep in Devon's past) sizzles with glorious frustration, most of it inspired by Katrina Lenk's superlative portrayal of Michaela. Hers is the showcase role in the frenetic comedy, and Lenk plays her tormented character's angst for all it's worth, clinging to a shred of authenticity as she devours the scenery.

As the sweetly efficient Simone, Melanie Lora excels at balancing the slings and arrows thrust by Michaela and Devon, calming the first while keeping the second at bay. Her cool description, to her sister, of her salary and benefits in her plush position is particularly laudable.

Her sister, deftly enacted by Cassie Beck, is having none of it. Representing the working class of "regular folks," Beck thrusts myriad zingers into the mix, standing out by her sheer contrast to the others, an Eliza Doolittle in her first visit to Ascot.

Simone has attracted a suitor from the sailboat set. Jamison Jones lifts caricature of the "tennis, anyone?" set to new and slightly ridiculous heights. With his tinted hair and sweater wrapped around his neck, Jones grates on our tolerance with his abbreviated versions of words ("sitch" for "situation," for instance) and overall air of faux superiority.

Rounding out the cast is Jos-B, richly rendered by Jonathan Nichols as a proud plebeian whose seething resentment of his station in life, and his demanding employer, grows as the story develops. Nichols is particularly effective when he finally assumes the upper hand in the roiling situation.

There is a sixth character in the SCR production – the opulent setting designed by Ralph Funicello, overwhelming in its expansive dimension. The contrasting costumes created by David Kay Mickelsen and Lap Chi Chu's rich lighting design also contribute in large measure to the show's success.

"Elemeno Pea" blends characterization and caricature in a swirling maelstrom of outrageously entertaining confrontation. It's a highly impressive introduction of director Marc Masterson to SCR audiences.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Elemeno Pea"

Where: South Coast Repertory Co. , 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: At 7:30 p.m. on Sundays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays , and at 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays until Feb. 26

Cost: $20-$68

Call: (714) 708-5555 or go to http://www.scr.org.

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