Written and Directed by Todd Solondz
Runs through 11.11.18
The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street
by Adrienne Urbanski on 10.26.18
Zonya Love, Matt Servitto, and Ilana Becker in Emma and Max. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: Filmmaker Todd Solondz covers familiar ground with his first foray into theater, a black comedy about a wealthy family and their mistreated nanny.
Anyone familiar with Todd Solondz’s filmography and his penchant for pitch black humor should not expect his theatrical debut to have a happy ending. Emma and Max covers familiar terrain for Solondz, bringing to mind his work Storytelling in which a privileged Jewish family mistreats their immigrant maid while being completely blind to her suffering. Emma and Max has a similar story (which also bears resemblance to a 2012 news story about an overworked homicidal nanny). It opens just as wealthy couple Brooke and Max (Ilana Becker and Matt Servitto) are firing their maid Britney (Zonya Love), an undocumented immigrant from Barbados. The blank, exhausted look on her face communicates the daily toil she has experienced while serving this family. They ply her with three months severance but offer her no explanation as to why she is being fired. But the reason becomes clear when Brooke mentions that her replacement is a young Dutch woman.
In one of the most well-written scenes, Brooke and Max take a vacation to Barbados. While they lay poolside, Brooke begins to feel guilt for firing Britney. Here Brooke reveals the deluded thinking that insulates her from admitting her own racism and instead leads her to see herself as an enlightened being guiding those she views as ignorant and less fortunate. Brooke, who is proud to know about James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, even laments how “I actually knew more about the black experience in America than [Britney] did.” The play then skips over the climax, instead showing Britney reflecting on her recent actions. While this fast forward does feel somewhat anticlimactic, it gives us a chance to hear Britney’s side, instead of letting her remain the silent, overburdened victim, and allows Zonya Love to showcase her acting abilities through her monologue.
Julia Noulin-Mérat's ingeniously designed set gives this production a polished feel and packs plenty of visual wows. To emphasize the extent of her labor Britney is physically responsible for changing the set, sighing as she physically strains to pull open doors and pull out platforms on which the actors are seated. She hands the actors the props needed for each scene all the while they look through her. Through this staging choice we see how the characters disregard Britney’s hard work, not noticing the physical toil she exerts to literally keep them afloat. The white set displays projections of laptops and cellphone screens on its walls, and these projections also augment the design in other ways. In the poolside scene, as Britney places a handrail on the stage, a projection of blue water magically appears, a visual trick that draws applause.
Even while shedding light on the ugliness present in American society, Emma and Max still manages to create great aesthetic beauty. There may not be any hope or redemption for these characters, but Solondz has created comedy and commentary out of fictional lives that might just be closer to reality than we think.
(Emma and Max plays at The Flea Theater, 20 Thomas Street, through November 11, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7; Saturdays at 3 and 7; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $45 general admission, $60 Friday and Saturday evenings ($100 for VIP) and are available at theflea.org or by calling 212-226-0051.)
Emma and Max is written and directed by Todd Solondz. Set Design by Julia Noulin-Mérat. Lighting Design by Becky Heisler McCarthy. Sound Design by Fabian Obispo. Stage Manager is Gina Solebello.
The cast is Zonya Love, Ilana Becker, Matt Servitto, and Rita Wolf.