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Off Broadway

Todd Solondz’s Kids, Emma and Max Get a New Nanny from The Flea

Todd Solondz’s Kids, Emma and Max Get a New Nanny from The Flea

Soothing music and engaging vocals wave us into the world of Todd Solondz’s Emma and Max, the famed filmmaker’s new play and directorial debut at The Flea Theater downtown. Solondz, best known for his dark and disturbing socially-conscious films such as “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” tends to skewer his own American middle-class suburban upbringing in New Jersey and beyond, and in Emma and Max, the tale is no different. It’s described as a critique of high-end New Yorkers and the complicated deconstruction of their biases, prejudices, and outright bigotry and racism within their illusions and delusions attached to parenting and marriage.  It’s a powerful and downright awkward exploration of hopes and despair, devastation and survival in typical Solondz fashion sparing “no one and skewers everyone in a play about privilege, race and the intersection of black and white“. I’d say it was more like an insightful and dangerous collision of concepts, weaving a thesis on race with almost more clarity and skill then Solondz’s film work, pushing hard on the humor while holding our head under water until we laugh or scream for air.

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Matt Servitto, Ilana Becker. Photo by Joan Marcus.

It’s all there, in perfectly coordinated panels of scenes, generally (but wisely, not always) rolled out by the hard working and worn down Brittany, played with a perfect physicality by powerhouse Zonya Love (off-Broadway’s Avenue Q), presenting interactions one after the other like scenes from a tightly wound movie. The first sets the cars in motion when Brooke, played sharply and neurotically by the clever Ilana Becker (HBO’s ‘Crashing‘) showing us just how hard it is being her, suffering as only a self-absorbed well-off New York mother and model wife can. She and her husband, Jay, played perfectly by Matt Servitto (Tony Kushner’s Intelligent Homosexual…. at the Public), have decided that Brittany is not intellectually up to caring for their two children, Emma and Max any longer.  They love her, they say, and think of her as family, but they’d much prefer the European nanny, whose voice and presence makes them happier and more comfortable, at least for the next moment or two until a shaky reveal. The two adorable kids make numerous appearances in the most perfect and telling manner, courtesy of the fine work by scenic and properties designer Julia Noulin-Méat (Minnesota Opera’s Rigoletto), lighting designer Becky Heisler McCarthy (Flea’s Inanimate), sound designer Fabian Obispo (Public’s Oedipus El Rey, Teenage Dick – with MaYi), and video designer Adam J. Thompson (TFANA’s The Emperor) exemplifying all we need to know about these two young children and their world of wealthy entitlement and parental engagement.

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Ilana Becker, Matt Servitto. Photo by Joan Marcus.

The couple seem to be perpetually waiting for Brittany to slide the heavy pieces together, making it all picture perfect. Even as they sit poolside in Brittany’s home country, a place of tragedy and death for the native, the image of her alone and unemployed doesn’t seem to realistically get under their skin or into their line of vision. The privileged white couple basking in the beautifulness of a high end resort only can find the momentum to complain about the scattered service. Dressed in typical designer wear, courtesy of costumes by Andrea Lauer (Broadway’s American Idiot, Off-Broadway’s The Boy Who Danced On Air), they wonder with obvious blindness why Brittany would ever want to leave such a place. “Brittney should just move back here. This hotel would snap her up like that. They’d love her. Cause she’d be so good at her job—whatever they asked her to do, she’d do it.” Solondz, the independent screenwriter and director writes this unthinking diatribe for Brooke to wonder aloud, as if he wants her to plead her case of privilege and obliviousness directly to us. He asks us to look in the mirror of that woman’s face, and ask ourselves, “How could I have given in?” even when we think we haven’t. The color-blind in the audience are seeing the light, guilty for not feeling, and shamed for not thinking. Brooke and all the others have a personalized soliloquy to hash out their racially charged emotional stances. Funny and frightening, “Tell it to the dead” Brittany suggests to a future Meryl Streep in a thoroughly devastating revelation that comes near the end of Emma and Max performed for an audience of one in the form of bystander and anthropologist of a sort, played with poise and passion by Rita Wolf (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim). The waves hit hard, even while making some of us laugh with shock, horror, and frustration. Pounding us backwards and presenting a reality we might want to discredit and push back behind the sliding doors of discomfort. All in order to continue living and believing that we are the liberal ones, open minded, caring, and hoping for the blue wave of reasonableness.

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Emma and Max at The Flea Theater. Directed by and Written by Todd Solondz. Zonya Love, Matt Servitto. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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