'Emma and Max': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
From left: Zonya Love, Matt Servitto and Ilana Becker in 'Emma and Max'
Heavy-handed and self-indulgent.
11/11/2018

Filmmaker Todd Solondz, of 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' and 'Happiness' fame, makes his theatrical debut as writer-director with this play about an upscale Manhattan couple and their Caribbean nanny.

Subtlety has never been a key element of such Todd Solondz films as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Storytelling. A similar bluntness pervades this theatrical effort, in which the indie filmmaker brings his darkly satirical sensibility to the stage for the first time. Receiving its world premiere at off-Broadway's Flea Theater as part of the company's "Color Brave" season devoted to works exploring racial themes, Emma and Max wears its ideas too heavily on its sleeve.

In the opening scene, an obviously well-heeled Manhattan couple, Jay (Matt Servitto) and Brooke (Ilana Becker), gently attempt to tell Britney (Zonya Love), the nanny of their 2- and 3-year-old children Emma and Max, that they have to let her go. It's clearly emotionally wrenching for Brooke, who assures the Barbados-born Britney, "We love you!" and then retches from the stress. "What did I do wrong?" the befuddled Britney asks, clearly taking little comfort from the large envelope of cash she's been handed, which she nevertheless proceeds methodically to count. "You don't like the way I smell," she says, accusingly, before collapsing onto the floor with a seizure.

We soon learn that Britney has been replaced by a young, white European nanny with a "lilting accent," instantly adored by the couple. "With Britney, it was always such a struggle just to understand what she was saying," Brooke points out to her husband. They are, however, bothered by the fact that Britney hasn't returned her keys to the apartment and seemingly has no intention of doing so, having ignored Brooke's repeated calls.

New Yorkers will probably remember the tragic case that obviously inspired the play. Solondz here uses it as a springboard for an examination of white privilege and the disparity of power between the upscale couple and their black employee. The problem is that he does so in such a heavy-handed manner.

Brooke describes being bullied at school when she was young as her "own personal Kristallnacht," while Jay complains that he missed out on academic scholarships because of "obvious anti-white, affirmative action bias." Relating how he and Brooke met on J-Date, Jay says they bonded over their shared interest in "Judd Apatow movies, Palestinian statehood and W Hotels." The song most often heard in the play is "The Winner Takes It All," with Solondz making it very clear who the winners are.

To emphasize the point, the writer-director has Love, who plays Britney, also serve in the role of stagehand, shifting pieces of the set in and out of place between scenes. She does so in exaggeratedly laborious fashion, moving slowly with great difficulty and occasionally clutching her back. That the power dynamic has shifted toward the end of the play is made evident by the other performers assuming the physical duties.

Much of the play is composed of long, rambling monologues that feel stilted and overwritten, designed to make thematic points. And the final scene, depicting Britney being interviewed in a prison cell by an author (Rita Wolf) intending to write a book about her case, seems mainly designed for cheap laughs revolving around Britney's assertion that the only actress who could convincingly play her in a movie is Meryl Streep. "And ABBA can do the soundtrack," she adds.

Like so many playwrights staging their own work, Solondz overly indulges his writing, resulting in an evening that feels static and talky. It's no fault of the actors, who do credible work despite their schematic characters. Still, Emma and Max ultimately feels more exploitative than illuminating of the tragic event that inspired it.

Venue: The Flea Theater, New York
Cast: Zonya Love, Ilana Becker, Matt Servitto, Rita Wolf
Playwright-director: Todd Solondz
Set designer: Julia Noulin-Merat
Costume designer: Andrea Lauer
Lighting designer: Becky Heisler McCarthy
Video designer: Adam J. Thompson
Sound designer: Fabian Obispo
Presented by The Flea Theater