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Emma and Max

Zonya Love, Matt Servitto and Ilana Becker in 'Emma and Max'                  photos Joan Marcus


                         By David Schultz


The Flea Theater has the honor of producing underground filmmaker Todd Solondz’s first foray into playwriting. This subversive filmmaker has many fans that crave his dark, snarky vision of humankind. An acquired taste for his films would prove to be an asset before seeing this comical horror story. Many uncomfortable moments are laid out in this disturbing 90 minute work, the underlying humor is dark and provocative. The superb cast of four is spot on with its scathing portrait of an upper-middle-class married couple at a crossroads. In the first brightly lit scene we are in the living room of a married couple Brooke (IIana Becker) and Jay (Matt Servitto) who are oh-so-nervously attempting to let go of Britney (Zonya Love) a Barbados emigre nursemaid and nanny to their 2 and 3 year old children Emma and Max. We never actually see the tots but they loom large in the minds of all the characters throughout the evening. Britney sits stonefaced as the uber liberal couple attempt to  fire her with kindness. They posit no reason in particular for her dismissal as they have already hired a white au pair from Holland to take up her duties. Something is wrong of course, but it’s hard to discern just what the actual problem could be. It is hard to fathom that racism is the cause, since Brooke and Jay go to extremes in the way they heap praise upon Britney, as they assuage their guilt by proffering her excessive monetary compensation.



The brief scene ends with Britney slowly…very slowly counting out her thick wad of bills, putting them back in their envelope, then unexpectedly dropping to the floor going into convulsions and suffers an epileptic seizure. From then on the sense of doom and foreboding slowly ratchet up exponentially. The set design is split into three separate sections with sliding doors that reveal various scenes. The emotional distress of this situation gives the frazzled couple an excuse to take a vacation to Barbados…the same locale that Britney grew up in. Brooke realizes that she never got the house passkey back upon her firing Britney. Myriad calls back home to request the key go unanswered. Lying in the hotel poolside, blistering heat baking their skin, they attempt to work out their justification for the firing. They are completely delusional in the ways they fool themselves for letting her go. Affluent privilege mingled with an over abundance of being extremely liberal minded cloud the real reasons for the situation.


Britney is shown in a separate scene listening to the soundtrack from Mama Mia as the phone rings again and again… (Brooke calling from her vacation, wants those keys back!), as she blissfully lies on her bed, knowing that the keys she still retains will remain with her. The cryptic scenes unfold slowly, incrementally revealing the cracked layers of each of the characters. In a very calculated move Director Solondz has Brittany appear in every scene change as she laboriously with an almost somnambulistic manner, stagger to each panel and slide ever so slowly the door to reveal the next scene. She indeed does the ‘heavy work’ for approximately 2/3 of the play. Then the other characters move the scenery for the remainder of the evening.

Brooke and Jay both are given great verbal arias of the pain that each has suffered in their lives; the total ignorance and tone-deaf obliviousness of their lives is refracted by the opposing life of Brittany. She is the one person whom the audience…from all appearances can relate to with greater ease. Sympathy for the downtrodden seems rather simple, but playwright Solondz has other things on his mind, and as he has done countless times in his films, completely subverts the situation as the play careens into its inevitable horrific conclusion.


The visual aspect designed by Julia Noulin-Merat works wonders with minimal props and furnishings. Sound designer Fabian Obispo creates a menacing aural soundscape that adds immeasurably to the proceedings. The captivating video designer Adam J. Thompson knocks it out of the ballpark with his compelling designs. Even before the play begins his visuals that are splayed onto the entire stage show an undulating seascape with crashing waves.


The last scene introduces an academic woman Padma (Rita Wolf) who is in the process of interviewing Brittany. Something has happened, something is wrong, and in what appears to be a hospital bed…or perhaps a prison bed…Padma attempts to unravel the mystery of just what is at the core of Brittany’s current emotional situation. Solondz cunningly unfurls his last abominable surprise. Anyone familiar with his oeuvre can see what’s coming. Nasty and horrifying, yet inevitable there it is. No one is spared in his play as it bites you on the ass.


The Flea Theater

20 Thomas Street in TriBeCa


Extended through November 11th