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Theatre in Review: Emma and Max (The Flea Theater)

Ilana Becker, Matt Servitto. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Emma and Max begins with a display of entitled behavior so awful, it can only have been imagined by Todd Solondz. Brooke and Jay, a married couple, are in the process of firing Brittany, their Barbadian nanny. With their peerless self-involvement, they manage to make it all about them, falling over each other to show how anguished they are about their completely elective decision. "You're like family," Brooke says, tearfully. "Better than family," insists Jay. "We love you," Brooke adds. "Of course, we'll give you superlative references." Jay hands her an envelope containing three months' salary. In the middle of this, Brooke runs out of the room to take another Xanax.

Brittany, who has sat still as a stone through these histrionics, points out that there must be a reason for her being fired. "Sometimes the pieces of the puzzle don't fit together," says Jay, but Brittany isn't accepting such banalities. Trying again, he says, "The children are getting older." "They're two and three," Brittany replies, putting a nail in that argument. Then comes the news that they've already engaged an au pair from the Netherlands. "A white girl?" wonders Brittany, "Actually, we don't know her ethnicity," insists Brooke. "You don't like the way I smell," says Brittany, causing waves of shocked denials. However, she isn't permitted to say goodbye to the children, who have been spirited out of the house for the evening. Brittany then takes an agonizingly long time to count the cash given her. She announces, "I'll need more money." Then she falls into a seizure.

Solondz is the American cinema's great misanthrope, and this scene is as comically awful a skewering of hypocrisy as anything in his films, which include Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Life During Wartime. It could stand alone as a nastily effective one-act; however, there are eighty minutes to go in Emma and Max, all of which amount to so many diminishing returns.

For if Brittany is gone, she continues to haunt Brooke and Jay, who flee to Barbados for a sun-and-fun vacation to recover from the traumatic firing. This cues a series of monologues exposing their essential odiousness. Brooke, wondering about the literacy rate in Barbados, adds, indignantly, "I asked [Brittany] once if she'd read James Baldwin. And she hadn't even heard of him! I mean, that documentary? And hello! Ta-Nehisi Coates? He's on our coffee table -- I left it out there for her!" She also rants on about the pain of growing up unattractive, recalling being told "You're so lucky, Brooke -- you'll never have to worry about being raped." (She is currently lacquered within an inch of her life.) She adds, "It was like my own personal Kristallnacht -- only it went on for years!" (Can we all agree that the time is long over for flippant use of the Nazi era as a lazy way of suggesting a character's shallow nature?) Administering the coup de grâce, she wails, "I wish I'd been born black -- then at least I could have shared the pain, the injustice of it all."

And Solondz is only getting started. He then has Jay unburden himself during a late-night fantasy conversation with Brittany. Recalling his youth, he says, "I had this summer job at McDonald's -- totally humiliating, but I just didn't get any academic internships -- obvious anti-white affirmative action bias, I know." Still, he admits of his fellow burger-slingers, "These were real people, struggling to make ends meet, throwing it all away on the lottery, people who believed in God." He recalls that he met Brooke on Jdate: "It was fast, it was easy, 'cause we liked so many of the same things. Judd Apatow movies, Palestinian statehood, the W hotels." Of course, he is bonking the Dutch au pair, a fact that comes out during a moment of turbulence on the flight back from their vacation. Do people really confess their sins to their spouses if they're afraid the plane is going down?

Listening to this pair indulge in such faux self-laceration becomes tedious, partly because of the overkill and partly because there is next to no dramatic action in Emma and Max. (The title refers to Brooke and Jay's children, whom we see only via video projection.) Inertia is the play's default state as it lurches from one long aria of bad faith to the next, delivered by characters so repellent that the only sensible reaction is to tune out.

The finale finds Brittany in solitary confinement, being interviewed by a woman writing some kind of book about the incarcerated. Insisting that "black" means "raped," she details her long history of sexual abuse followed by multiple pregnancies, ending with the babies gotten rid of as expeditiously as possible. Responding to an attempt by Padma, her interlocutor, to comfort her, Brittany says, "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."

As long as Solondz is savaging Brooke and Jay, one can argue that he is pursuing a kind of Swiftian satire. Turning to Brittany, he objectifies her arguably even more than her employers do, rendering her as a unidimensional beast of burden lacking the faintest shading of humanity. I should add that Brittany is in prison for having committed a horrific crime. I won't say what it is, but I will note that, weeks after firing her, Brooke has failed to get her housekeys back -- astonishingly, she has no idea where Brittany lives -- and she and Jay dash off to the Caribbean without giving a thought to having their locks changed. All this despite the fact that they find Brittany disturbing in ways they can't articulate.

Solondz also directed, allowing the action to move at a snail's pace. It certainly doesn't help that the scene changes are enacted by Brittany, painfully moving furniture around the stage and taking her own sweet time to do it. Done once, it is effective; as an evening-long strategy, it merely adds to the feeling of ennui. Ilana Becker and Matt Servitto wring every last drop of bile from the roles of Brooke and Jay, sparing neither themselves nor us in creating two of the most appalling characters to appear on a New York stage in some time. Zonya Love's Brittany is a silent, sullen, inherently powerful presence, but she is given nothing else to play, resulting in a performance whose one note becomes wearying. Rita Wolf does well as the sympathetic, if ineffectual, Padma.

Julia Noulin-Mérat's set, a curved wall out of which various scenic units emerge, is a solid idea; it's too bad that Solondz lets the scene changes slow to a crawl. Adam J. Thompson's video, including scenes of Emma and Max playing with their new au pair and shots of Caribbean skies, palm trees, and pools, make a big contribution. Among other things, Fabian Obispo's sound design includes excellent use of the ABBA hit, "The Winner Takes It All," a song that could fairly be termed the thesis statement for Emma and Max. Andrea Lauer's costumes are solid.

Emma and Max is part of The Flea's Color Brave season, which features works that grapple with race in America. But only a few minutes in, it seems clear that the play is less about race than Solondz's distaste for his fellow humans. Brittany, who is a little starstruck, says to Padma, "When you sell your book to Twentieth Century Fox and Meryl Streep plays me in the movie version, you can tell her, this is my redemption. She'll fill in the blanks." Trouble is, Solondz has filled in the blanks, dotted the Is, and crossed the Ts, leaving us with nothing to discover, and no possibility of redemption. -- David Barbour

(16 October 2018)

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