By: Samuel L. Leiter
October 16, 2018: Emma and Max is the playwriting debut of controversial, independent filmmaker Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), who also directed. Part of the Flea Theater’s “Color Brave” season, it’s a well-acted, intermittently interesting, but overly garrulous, tortoise-slow, oddly shaped play satirizing (with too-few laughs) the racial attitudes of white so-called liberals, as well as the nasty effects—including on raising kids and wedlock—of white privilege.
The play begins when a room thrusts forth from a closed wall, showing the Greenwich Village home of a well-to-do, philandering businessman, Jay (Matt Servitto), and his narcissistic wife, Brooke (Ilana Becker). Despite all the praise they heap on her as one of their family, this socially-challenged couple is firing the black nanny, Brittany (Zonya Love), who looks after their two- and three-year-old eponymous kids (seen only in a computer desktop screen projection).
Brittany, a Barbados immigrant, who’s told she hasn’t done anything wrong, is going to be replaced by Famke, a Dutch au pair. Barely speaking, she receives three months’ severance pay, which she counts out slowly, bill by bill, almost as a punishment to her uncomfortable bosses.
This precipitates a tale in which Jay and Brooke worry that Brittany, depressed and unable to find a job, hasn’t returned the household keys, and might be capable of vengeance. Perhaps you’ll wonder, as did I, why Jay waits so long before bringing up the idea of changing the lock. Does Solondz want us to ridicule the couple for their fears of a disgruntled black employee? Given what happens, it’s a question only those seeing the play can attempt to answer.
Jay and Brooke feel guilty about their fired nanny, Brooke even equating her own childhood “ugliness”—her “personal Kristallnacht,” she calls it—to Brittany’s situation. But, leaving Emma and Max with Famke, they go off to bask in the sun of Brittany’s Barbados, where she says, ominously, all her relatives are dead.
Over the course of the play’s 90 minutes, each of the principals gets to deliver a very lengthy monologue, even when no one’s listening. Brooke touches on the white guilt she feels for underprivileged people of color; Jay speaks of his marriage, the pleasure he takes in firing people (POTUS, are you listening?), and the racism he tries to justify; and Brittany, incarcerated, tells Padma (Rita Wolf), an activist writer, about what led to her imprisonment.
Oddly laconic until now, Brittany finally spits out whatever cat’s been holding her tongue by bursting out with page after page of dramatic, even bizarre revelations, some referencing Jay’s sexual predations, some mentioning rape, and some explaining why she did what she did to end up as she has.
It’s a weird narrative suggesting that this downtrodden woman—who believes the only actress capable of acting her in a movie is Meryl Streep (heard singing ABBA’s “The Winner Takes it All” from Mama Mia!)—isn’t playing with a full deck. Just as we can find little compassion for the clueless, solipsistic Jay and Brooke (who vanish two-thirds through the play), so is it difficult—despite the implications—to feel deeply for the angry Brittany.
Water being one of the themes trickling through the play, projected waves wash coolly over the walls at both the beginning and end. Even the pale gray walls of Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set—an upstage wall with its two side walls set at obtuse angles—are covered with watery lines, gracefully lit by Becky Heisley McCarthy; later, we’ll also see a swimming pool projected on the floor.
Each wall contains sliding panels that are pushed aside to reveal an interior setting, which rolls out or is slid back as needed. Many of the shifts, clearly intended to symbolize Brittany’s oppression, require she perform them like Sisyphus rolling his hellish stone. It’s a clever convention but its overuse only draws attention to Solondz’s snail-like pacing.
Each actor makes a distinct impression, and Solondz’s attractive physical production (including Andrea Lauer’s costumes) achieves its goals. Still, Emma and Max’s overly broad characters lack the humanity needed for audience empathy, its dramatic structure (all that speechifying!) is distractingly lumpy, and it’s satire’s point is too quickly blunted.
Emma and Max ***
20 Thomas St., NYC
Through October 28, 2018
Photography: Joan Marcus