Todd Solondz is one of the few white, male enfants terribles of ’90s American independent cinema to maintain the incisive edge that made his reputation. While contemporaries such as Richard Linklater, Gus Van Sant and Steven Soderbergh have built careers out of the ideological compromises that come with a Hollywood budget, Solondz has paid the price for his obstinacy, making only eight films in nearly 30 years and moving to the margins of culture. For most people, Solondz is the man who made a pedophile sympathetic in 1998’s Happiness, but his true signature is the ability to cut through identity politics to expose the fear, anxiety, and depression at the center of the American dream. Solondz’s playwriting debut, Emma and Max, lacks the gut punch of his finest film work, but showcases an artist still as obsessed as ever with trying to figure out why the hell people seem determined to get everything wrong.
For Solondz, race and class can only be understood in concert with each other. Emma and Max begins with wealthy Jay and Brooke (Matt Servitto and Ilana Becker, both perfectly cast) firing their undocumented Barbadian nanny, Brittany (Zonya Love). Brooke assures Brittany that letting her go is the hardest thing she’s ever had to do, because she is “like family,” but when Brittany presses for reasons, they simply tell her it’s “not working out.”
The play’s best moment comes early, when Jay hands Brittany an envelope full of cash and she forces them to watch her count it, figuring out just how much her suddenly former employers’ guilt is worth. Excruciating silences have long been Solondz’s secret weapon, and he leans into them here, especially in the lumbering scene changes that force Brittany to do most of the labor, opening doors and sliding walls into place with her tired, broken body. It’s a brilliant, highly theatrical analogue to the unseen labor performed daily and without fanfare by the Brittanys of the world. All Brooke can do when Brittany has a seizure is ask, “Feel better now?”
Jay and Brooke cope with their guilt by vacationing in Barbados, while Brittany silently contends with this latest dehumanization in a life defined by them. Emma and Max is named for the wealthy couple’s children, who are viewed only through digital screens. Though never seen, the children are the battlefield on which the main characters act out their grievances.
This thematic ground has been done to death, by Solondz and any number of artists. Yet while it’s admittedly low-hanging fruit, the play dissects its tropes with wicked glee. Brooke and Jay’s dialogue is a taxonomy of tone-deaf white liberal hypocrisy: “I’ve always felt for the illegals, even if it’s their own fault.” “I wish I’d been born black—then at least I could have shared the pain.” “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!” Brooke faults Brittany for knowing less about the “African-American experience” than Brooke, and Jay takes immense pride in all the people he’s fired or had fired over the years, a not-so-subtle dig at a certain sitting President.
Brittany has internalized America’s view of her; she worships Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! and thinks that white babies are the most beautiful. She tells an academic (Rita Wolf) who is interested in her story that only Meryl could play Brittany in the movie of her life, not Beyoncé or Halle Berry or Oprah—Brittany wants the best, and that’s Meryl. Mamma Mia! as a running motif throughout the play is vintage Solondz, a potshot at both the Hollywood where islands are paradises where wealthy white people can romp freely, and the vapid public that laps up its racist pablum.
Yet Solondz himself cannot imagine Brittany as anything other than a tragic depository of the world’s shame, and her long monologue at the end of the play, after taking a decisive and horrible step to reclaim her humanity, rings utterly false, despite Love’s ferocious delivery. Water is everywhere in Emma and Max, from the wave patterns on the walls of Julia Noulin-Mérat’s set to the underwater projections designed by Adam J. Thompson that greet the audience. We’re all drowning in our collective indifference, Solondz seems to be saying, but he hasn’t thrown a life raft so much as hosed a little more water on top.
Emma and Max, by Todd Solondz, plays through October 28 at the Flea Theater (20 Thomas St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays; matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information and tickets, visit theflea.org.