My thirteen-year-old daughter went to see Cinderella this weekend, which she liked very much, with one qualm: “I don’t think I ever realized,” she said to me after I picked her up at the mall, “when I was a little kid watching the animated version, that they get married after just barely knowing each other for a few hours. I mean, he’s really rich and she’s got nothing, so you can see why she would do it, but – how’s that really gonna work out?”
That question – how does that class mobility thing really work out? – is at the heart of Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea, a sharply observed comedy about the unacknowledged barriers between the haves and the have-nots that make such Cinderella moves especially tricky to pull off.
The play takes place in the living room of the guest house of a ridiculously amazing Martha’s Vineyard estate (stunningly designed by Tony Ferrieri) owned by Peter and Michaela Kell, a fabulously rich couple whose fortune comes mainly by way of Peter’s father’s success in advertising. Simone (Robin Abramson), Michaela’s obscenely well-compensated personal assistant, has invited her older sister Devon (Ariel Woodiwiss) for a post-Labor Day weekend on the beach. It’s the first time Devon – whose own recent trajectory has been one of downward mobility, having gone from a supervisor at a social work agency to alley coordinator at Olive Garden – has seen Simone in her new gig, and she’s understandably both agog at the wealth on display and a bit befuddled by her sister’s relationship to it. Their vacation is interrupted by the unexpected return of Michaela (Kimberly Parker Green), who has been unceremoniously dumped from her husband’s Jaguar on the way to the ferry off the island. It’s not all “happily ever after” in this castle, after all: Michaela, who comes from the same kind of scruffy upstate New York suburban background as Simone and Devon, has only the most tenuous of holds on her rung on the aristocratic ladder, and, as it turns out, she has made some terrible miscalculations about how to maintain what little security and status she has. Now she is – in the words of Peter’s friend/Simone’s boyfriend, the über-facile and ultra-wealthy Ethan (Anthony Comis) – “O-U-T out,” and as she moves through this personal crisis we see, in a series of wittily written scenes, how both Simone and Devon’s assessment of her changes.
Metzler is interested in how class and status sediment into stereotype, so for much of the play she gives us characters who seem closer to caricatures than real people. It’s a clever choice that works well, because it both allows us to see each character through the others’ preconceived ideas and expectations and makes room for each character to break stereotype in unanticipated ways. Moreover, although some of the stereotypes feel at times a bit pat – in particular, both the entitled Ethan and the Puerto Rican handyman Jos-B (Tony Chiroldes) skirt dangerously close to being quotations of real people – the City Theatre cast infuses enough heart into each character to lend real poignancy to the play’s outcome. Parker Green and Woodiwiss have the furthest to take their characters, and they do so masterfully – both reveal unexpected honesty and warmth as the play winds to a close and Abramson’s blinkered Simone heads off to a Cinderella future that looks to end a lot like Michaela’s.