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.
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.
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.