BWW Review: The Flea Presents the World Premiere of Solondz's EMMA AND MAX
There are many plays that evoke feelings and entertain and do everything that an admirable piece of theater is meant to; I cannot say, though, that these plays are as poignant or as tragically beautiful as Emma and Max: the show I was fortunate to see on its closing night. I can't remember the last time I not only stepped out of a theater in awe of what was just seen, but then brought with me the thoughts and questions that were constantly forming like a never-ending chain; this was to the moment I walked through my front door. It is so hard to come up with the perfect form of praise for everything this show is, without also thinking of how the show affects me, compares to my life and makes me question every decision made in the last twenty-four hours.
Emma and Max, written and directed by Todd Solondz, is a play that is so complex, so encompassing of all that is grey matter in the world, it can easily be the influence of a college thesis. Focusing on the several different ways people view race, privilege and who is worthy of what, the story begins and ends with a disgruntled caretaker from Barbados - a woman who is smitten with two children she is no longer allowed to take care of and is the omnipresent thought as their parents explain why they needed to let her go.
In what mimics the form of a Greek tragedy (with the title of Emma and Max alone, making the play about those who debatably suffer the most) the stage is set for the unexpected and almost foreboding - something that is ensconced in the seemingly normal firing of an employee. At the start of the show, the audience is unaware as to why Britney, the family's longtime caretaker, is being let go if she has not done anything "wrong" to merit her dismissal. She is quiet, a passive observer of yet another injustice against her. Brooke and Jay, whose children Emma and Max have come to love their caretaker, reveal that it is more about their views of both others and themselves that brings them to make the difficult decision. Their views of people who are not like them are neither right or wrong, just or unjust; to them, based on what both have been through and what both have become, they simple are. Emma and Max is almost a deductive rediscovery of what reverts us back into the children this story bases its name on: are we able to see past race and difference, or is it so incorporated into the kinds of issues we face that it is impossible?
Emma and Max begins with Britney's firing, followed by the news that a young, European beauty has already swept in to take her place. Brooke and Jay made it clear that firing her was one of the hardest decisions they ever had to make, and the subsequent scenes outline in a train-of-thought, inward battle fashion why this guilt gnaws at them so much. In their attempt to seek the "perfection" of their lives, they cast Britney away due to factors such as her accent and the assumption that she is untrustworthy because of her own lack of children; this decision though, turns out to have very little to do with Britney. In moments of pure thought, genuine reactions and wonderfully drawn out explanations, Brooke and Jay tell what they must to alleviate the guilt; the diatribes remind me exactly of how I would write a show, making sure all the if's, ands or buts were all included. As Britney literally manhandles the set pieces, moving them back and forth to reveal the couple either relaxing in bed, sitting on a beach in Barbados or enjoying their first class seats, the obvious statement made here is not simply a matter of black and white; Emma and Max is a revelation in what it means to suffer, how people suffer and, like water, whether it can ever be truly washed away.
I had said that this show really gave me a lot to think about, but it is not only in terms of race or privilege, factors that could possibly make for defensiveness or prejudice; this show is too tasteful to debase or show sides. And I say that with all possible respect for what a character such Britney has gone through - what people like her around the world must unbelievably go through. Just to disclose a bit about her life, Britney came from Barbados and found herself the victim of continuous cases of rape - some by white men, and some by black. With each case, she was forced to abort her babies again and again, living through an endless cycle of inescapable abuse. Yet, the audience is unaware of this until she does the unspeakable to Emma and Max. Instead, Britney is forced to move set pieces with obvious burden as Brooke and Jay speak about why their decision to fire Britney was justified.
Brooke was an ugly child, constantly teased and ostracized to the point that, as an adult, she is compelled to take part in every possible regiment to keep herself beautiful; we are not given the inclination that she enjoys any of it. She is empathetic to Britney's feelings, relating her fear of being cast out to the guilt of having done the same thing to someone else - to making someone feel as she once felt. Jay, on the other hand, speaks of the black kids he used to work with at this one embarrassing stint at McDonald's - too good for his ivy-league educated self. He then reveals that he no longer loves his wife, and can't imagine when that realization came about. All the while, Britney listens: unseen, but there.
Emma and Max brings up so many questions that are crucial to an understanding of not only ourselves, but of other people; it turns us into bystanders of our own world. The biggest one is: does race influence how we view the issues people face? Both Jay and Brooke have a few insecurities when it comes to people who are not part of their high caliber of living; they bring up stereotypes of people who are assumed to be a certain way due to the color of their skin. People like Britney are troubled because they are raped or abused (as the couple doesn't know); yet, are Brooke's and Jay's sufferings any less because they are not the same? Is the audience committing some sort of stereotypical wrong to say that the rather unhappy couple's plights are not as significant because they are able to fly to Barbados and treat each other with indifference - because their money becomes a blinding factor?
Towards the end of the show, when Britney explains why she committed such a crime, her monologue is one of the most poignant and downright riveting performances (in itself) that I have ever seen; you cannot help but be captivated by every word and also not pass any judgment whatsoever. You just want to listen. And I think that summarizes this entire production and the point it tries to make: if we just listened to each others' stories instead of judging and assuming, perhaps there wouldn't be so much trouble in the world.
This production is, simply put, wonderful. Collaboratively, the cast and creative team truly put in quite the effort to make this as moving a story as possible. Credit must go to the talented cast, which includes Zonya Love, Ilana Becker, Matt Servitto and Rita Wolf. Julia Noulin-Mérat as Scenic Designer, Andrea Lauer as Costume Designer, Becky Heisler McCarthy as Lighting Designer, Adam J. Thompson as Video Designer and Fabian Obispo as Sound Designer (among many others) work their magic backstage.
Emma and Max, which celebrated its World Premiere at the Flea Theater (located at 20 Thomas Street in Tribeca), ran from October 1st thru October 28th. Due to a successful run, it has now been extended thru November 11th! Performances are Wednesday - Monday, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm. Tickets start at $15, with the lowest priced tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis. Purchase
tickets by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.theflea.org.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus