Emma and Max are the toddlers in the care of a Barbadian nanny, Britney, who is fired by their parents in the awkward first scene of “Emma and Max,” a jarring play about racism written and directed by filmmaker Todd Solondz, making his theatrical debut.
The couple is replacing her with “an au pair from Holland,” as the wife Brooke (Ilana Becker) hesitantly explains to a gloomy Brittany (Zonya Love.)
“What’s that? A white girl?”
“Actually we don’t know her ethnicity. We didn’t ask.”
It’s the first outrageous laugh in a merciless satiric portrait of the couple.
Like Solondz’s films (“Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness,” “Weiner-Dog”), “Emma and Max” is dryly funny and uncomfortably dark. Its unsparing and unrealistic depiction of unlikeable characters seems almost purposefully designed to offend. I found it off-putting, sure, but also provocative and compelling, helped by the grounded acting of an excellent four-member cast. It feels a fitting second play in the “Color Brave” season at The Flea Theater (the first, very different, was “Scraps.”)
“Emma and Max” offers a kind of exaggerated Baedaker of racist euphemism by affluent white people who consider themselves liberal and enlightened.
“I actually think the little ones’ English is a little lagging because of her…well…cultural limitations,” Brooke says at one point, talking about Brittany’s influence on Emma and Max, trying to make herself feel less guilty for having fired a nanny that her children love.
Her husband Jay (Matt Servitto) is blunter, using a tell-tale tortured syntax: “I mean, some people, some ‘cultures’ —and I’m not being racist, but even if I am, which I’m not, it’s true! sometimes a stereotype is not just a stereotype—cause sometimes they’re so lazy or irresponsible or inept, you wonder why they’re even working!”
Solondz is relentless in his cartoonish rendering of Jay and Brooke, making them not just bigoted, but oblivious, self-centered and self-pitying. “Sometimes I feel like if I were a character in a book or a movie, people would say I was unsympathetic,” Brooke says, lying poolside at a resort in Barbados, where they’re vacationing to recover from the stress of having fired Brittany. “And it really hurts…cause it’s not true!” Brooke deserves sympathy, as she explains to Jay, who is sleeping on the lounge chair next to hers, because she was teased as a child for being fat.“It was like my own personal Kristallnacht—only it went on for years!”
Brittany, though initially far more sympathetic, is ultimately as hyperbolic a character in her own way. She’s in love with white people. “Whites make the most beautiful children.”
She wears a Mamma Mia t-shirt, and idolizes Meryl Streep – Brittany would like to see Streep play her in a movie of her life.
What about Beyonce, Halle Berry or Oprah, somebody suggests. Brittany reacts in contempt: “They all hate me. I am not a positive role model. I am not strong, I am not empowered. I have no ‘agency.’ No potential. No message. No inspiration. No lesson to learn, or lesson learned. I am a black hole. The undead.
“But Meryl Streep, she’ll get me. And she’ll make people care. Bring empathy. Inclusion…”
It would be a spoiler to reveal why Brittany might think anybody would be interested in making a movie of her life. It’s one of several shockers in “Emma and Max,” but less shocking for those who know Solondz’s films.
One can see why Solondz chose to make “Emma and Max” a play rather than a film; he uses an abundance of words in place of images. While there is some adroit dialogue, the playwright relies heavily on what are in effect monologues (The characters are supposedly speaking to one another in these scenes, but the partner is either just listening or sleeping.)
But, with the help of an inventive design team, Solondz creates a stagecraft that you might have called cinematic even if you didn’t know his background. Emma and Max and the new nanny, for example, exist only as silent video images, one of many stage-wide projections. Britney, by contrast, is physically, sometimes painfully, present as a live human being. She performs almost all the set changes, opening up doors, pulling out beds, moving furniture, each time holding her back and breathing heavily as if undertaking an onerous chore. It’s one of the clever, surprisingly moving touches that silently speak volumes, and could only happen in theater.
Emma and Max
Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Scenic and prop design by Julia Noulin-Merat, lighting by Becky Heisler McCarthy, video design by Adam Thompson, lighting design by Fabian Obispo
Cast: Ilana Becker as Brooke, Zonya Love as Brittany, Matt Servitto as Jay, and Rita Wolf
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.
“Emma and Max” is scheduled to run through October 28, 2018