Theater review: After promising start, Horizon comedy deteriorates


THEATER REVIEW

“Elemeno Pea”

Grade: B-

Through April 13. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Horizon Theatre, 1083 Austin Ave. (in Little Five Points), Atlanta. $20-$30. 404-584-7450, www.horizontheatre.com.

Bottom line: Opens well, develops poorly.

If only every show could be as terrific as the sets that Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay design for them.

This sister team has been doing some incredible work over the past several years, and the latest display of their artistry is a simply sumptuous Martha’s Vineyard beach house. Walking into the intimate Horizon Theatre, the mere sight of it might take your breath away. What’s more (fairly or not), it somehow lifts your expectations of the play about to unfold on it.

Molly Smith Metzler’s comedy “Elemeno Pea” (as in l-m-n-o-p) opens promisingly. Simone, who lives in the house as the personal assistant to a rich trophy wife in the mansion next door, invites her sister Devon, a humble restaurant worker back in Brooklyn, to visit for the weekend.

In director Heidi Cline McKerley’s Horizon production, the roles are nicely played by Cynthia D. Barker and Tiffany Porter, respectively. They set up the premise of the show with clever charm to spare, establishing a convincing bond and a natural rapport from the get-go, as Simone shows off such amenities as the view, the soundproof patio, the voice-activated music system — and the fully stocked bar — all to Devon’s understandable amazement and disbelief.

The play is billed as a chic comedy about life’s so-called haves and have-nots, about the clashing cultures and class distinctions between them. While it’s entirely conceivable that Metzler has everything she needs to proceed on point with these sisters alone, unfortunately “Elemeno Pea” isn’t a two-woman show. Their sibling rivalry is balanced and reasonable, qualities that Metzler’s other caricatures, as it were, have not.

We eventually meet Simone’s alternately shrill and whining employer, Michaela (Cara Mantella, of course, doing her specialty). And a stereotypical Hispanic groundskeeper (Tony Guerrero), whom Michaela calls Jos-B to distinguish him from another laborer named Jose (ugh). And just when you think it can’t get any more broad or ludicrous, here comes Simone’s new boyfriend, Ethan (Adam Fristoe), a thoroughly vacuous Nantucket playboy.

Metzler may intend it to give the character an added dimension, but why any woman as smart and sensible as Simone would so giddily fall for such a cad defies all credibility. So do late-breaking revelations involving Michaela’s troubled marriage, a rather shameless playwriting ploy that requires Mantella to shift into hand-wringing-melodrama mode (and she complies well enough).

Presumably, it's all in the interest and spirit of what Simone observes from the top: "We just need to learn how to have more empathy for each other." But, if only in the case of Simone herself, "Elemeno Pea" essentially has the opposite effect, wherein you might actually feel less for her as the play sputters on.

Although the rest of the show doesn’t end nearly so fine as it begins, at the very least the fabulous set holds up beautifully.