Flea Theater, the Sam
20 Thomas St. between Broadway & Church St.
Wednesday - Monday through November 11, $47-$102
Eclectic auteur Todd Solondz, the creator of such offbeat, unusual indie films as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Storytelling, doesn’t disappoint with his first play, the dark, acerbic Emma and Max, which has been extended at the Flea through November 11. Solondz reveals the dark underbelly of suburbia in the ninety-minute show, which is wickedly funny and all too real. Wealthy white Upper West Siders Brooke (Ilana Becker) and Jay (Matt Servitto) are attempting to fire their black nanny, Britanny (Zonya Love), who has been taking care of their kids, three-year-old Emma and two-year-old Max (played by Sawyer Manning and Mason Goldstein, respectively, seen only briefly in video and photographs). “The children adore you,” Brooke tells Brittany, who looks at her blond boss stone-faced. “You’re more than we could ever have hoped for. So much more,” Jay adds. Brooke and Jay are acting like it is harder for them to get rid of her than it is for Brittany to get kicked out; they’re terrified of saying anything that can be construed as even the slightest bit politically incorrect. “What I do wrong?” Brittany asks. “Nothing,” Brooke replies, to which Brittany says, “Can’t be nothing. A person don’t get fired for nothing.” When Brooke explains that she is being replaced by an au pair from Holland, Brittany says, “What’s that? A white girl?” A disturbed Brooke answers, “Actually we don’t know her ethnicity. We didn’t ask,” as if a Dutch woman named Famke (Lacy Allen, also seen in video only) could be anything else.
Brooke takes an instant liking to Famke but feels guilty that she doesn’t feel guilty over firing Brittany, who spends most of her time in bed listening to Meryl Streep singing “The Winner Takes It All” from Mamma Mia! and not responding to Brooke’s constant phone calls and texts asking her to return her keys to their house. When she’s not at home, Brittany is making the set changes, as if she is a slave still working for Brooke and Jay, who watch her opening and closing doors and pushing and pulling furniture, occasionally making faces at her if they think she is taking too long. It’s an ingenious conceit that extends beyond the narrative world of the play, as if Solondz the director is also abusing Love the actress, who portrays Brittany with a steely, decidedly unglamorous demeanor. (The storage-like set with aluminum-siding-like covering and clever props are designed by Julia Noulin-Mérat.) Brooke and Jay go on vacation in Barbados, where Brittany is from, rubbing yet more salt in the wound without even realizing it. Complaining about certain aspects of her own childhood, Brooke says, “The point is, I know something about what it means to feel marginalized . . . My experience, my pain . . . I wish I’d been born black — then at least I could’ve shared the pain, the injustice of it all.”
Everything comes full circle as Brittany finally gets to share her own story, telling it to a woman named Padma (Rita Wolf, who also plays flight attendant Mira) who is recording the mostly one-sided conversation. “I believe in things I know and understand and see. I’m not good at make-believe. I’m not invisible,” Brittany explains. “White people see me. Black people see me. White people see my blackness. Black people see my blackness. That’s what they see. But I see water.” The concept of water is essential to Solondz, a New Jersey native who is married and has two young children; images of water are projected by Adam Thompson onto the set as well as forming the entrance to a resort swimming pool. Emma and Max is about how people see and judge one another, but primarily how whites see and judge blacks. Brooke and Jay get flustered by white people’s problems, reveling in their ingrained, unearned white privilege while believing the world owes them everything, from wealth and success to exceptional children and servants. The play is a sharply observant skewering of the status quo in a Trump America that continues to encounter racism, bigotry, and hatred every day and where the term “privilege” has become a dirty word to about half the country. It’s also a place where payback can be a bitch, where there are consequences for physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. It’s not a happy situation, but it’s damn funny and frighteningly realistic, a mirror brilliantly held up to a society in crisis.