by Hazen Cuyler
Emma and Max—now playing at the Flea Theater—is a trap set to deceive us all. Written and directed by Todd Solondz, an experienced independent film-maker who I hope will achieve greater visibility. See it while you can, because this hyper-relevant dissection of our fears, favoritism, shortcomings and blindness will only run until October 28.
Brooke and Jay are wealthy Jewish parents of Emma and Max, two young children. Their nanny is Brittany. She is a black illegal immigrant from Barbados who’s just been fired for no apparent reason. When the family replaces Brittany with a white au pair from Holland, we smile and rest on our convenient diagnosis of rich suburban white privilege and racism. The signs aren’t subtle and we aren’t wrong. But as events wax on, we’re forced to confront our propensity for snap judgments.
Here’s an example of a typical scene:
The stage is split into two adjacent areas, a sunny vacation spot and Brittany’s bedroom. Brooke and Jay lay poolside at a resort in Barbados. Brittany lies beneath covers in her drab, windowless bedroom.
Jay is asleep in the sun, snuggling his iPad. Brooke speaks to her sleeping husband for the next ten minutes. After attempting to Facetime her newly appointed nanny, she notices the shortage of employees. There must be high unemployment in Barbados and a staff job at this resort would bring anyone dignity. “If you want to have success, it all comes down to attitude,” she explains, stretched out in her chaise lounge chair. “I like totally get the whole white privilege entitlement thing,” she says, hurt that some people may find her unsympathetic.
Suddenly, Brooke describes her childhood. Her mother was dying of ovarian cancer. Her brother was mentally retarded. She had weight problems and a skin condition. School girls would tell her she’s lucky to be so ugly because she’ll never have to worry about being raped.
And then without warning, “It was like my own personal Kristallnacht—only it went on for years!”
This is the continuum of the play. And it does not slow or alter. The audience will relentlessly laugh at a character until a tragic detail of their past is casually revealed. And then you can watch that same audience scan amongst the crowd, seeking guidance of how to appropriately respond. It’s a fascinating experiment.
All of this is made possible from accomplished and skillful performances.
As Brooke, Ilana Becker’s lovable charm disarms us. We jeer at her ignorance and uncultured opinions but as warm tears tumble down her cheek, we feel a sharp pain for our part in dehumanizing her. Through Ms. Becker’s sensitive and very funny portrayal, we see ourselves reflected in those whose cruelty we condemn.
Matt Servitto’s Jay is obnoxious, entitled, successful and educated. Armed with a similar charm, he is disarmingly aloof, filling the room with a kind of misguided dad charisma. We chuckle at his absurdity and then punch ourselves in the face for ever trusting him.
I won’t be the only one to take notice of Zonya Love’s radiant and subdued performance. Strategically directed, Ms. Love’s Brittany embodies a magnetically apathetic physicality while delving deep within a lifetime of despair. Her final moments on stage recount a bitter and tragic life. And her choices strain our capacity to remain sympathetic.
Of course, one must mention the maestro, Todd Solondz. This is his first play and before now I’d never heard of him. And there’s a good chance you hadn’t either. He’s a seasoned filmmaker, though he’s never amassed a huge audience. But it is thrilling to encounter a sharp persona commanding such fresh satirical bite. An emotionally intelligent artist with disregard for solemnity or overly-agreeable conventions. Considering our current climate, Mr. Solondz could prove to be a notable and influential artist of this epoch.
As we venture further into our digital age, our lives and relationships can seem frustratingly nuanced. At best they appear unintelligible; at worst, utterly hopeless. But the brilliance lying within Emma and Max is that no matter how villainous some characters may appear or how irrational we are to forgive their trespasses, we can’t stop rooting for them. Maybe not to become more financially successful. Maybe to become more understanding. Maybe to be happier. Maybe, we just hope they’ll keep going. To stay afloat. To swim and not to drown.
Emma and Max. Through October 29 at The Flea Theater (20 Thomas Street, between Church Street and Broadway, TriBeCa). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.theflea.org
Photos: Joan Marcus