Todd Solondz, independent cinema’s prince of pessimism, makes an assured theatrical debut with Emma and Max at the Flea Theater. The themes that have occupied Solondz throughout his three-decade film career – chiefly, the casual cruelties we inflict upon each other, and the inability to process a capacity to do harm – take center stage, translating well to the new medium.
The play’s title refers to the two children of Brooke (Ilana Becker) and Jay (Matt Servitto), a well-heeled Manhattan couple who are mostly blind to their own privilege. Their apartment – rendered by scenic designer Julia Noulin-Mérat, with video projections by Adam J. Thompson – communicates a kind of unspoken affluence, with Frank Stella prints on the wall and trendy modernist furniture. They spend the play’s first scene calmly explaining to Brittany (Zonya Love), their devoted Barbadian nanny, why her services are no longer required.
Solondz nails the clueless privilege the moment demands – Brooke, so distraught at firing someone she views as “better than family,” runs offstage to retch and pound Xanax; Jay, after shoving an envelope of cash in Brittany’s hands, reflexively comforts his wife. Brittany remains stoic, counting the money, concerned only that Emma and Max will miss her too much. (Jay and Brooke refuse her request to say goodbye to them, citing the potential “long-term psychological trauma”). Famke, an elegant au pair from Holland, will take her place.
In the early scenes, Solondz lobs microaggressions like missiles, as Jay and Brooke rehash Brittany’s “cultural limitations” and her supposedly muddled English syntax, which allegedly stunted the children’s language acquisition. He gives Brooke and Jay each a long monologue to fully demonstrate the moral rot lurking between their outwardly liberal veneers. Although the dialogue occasionally veers toward the ridiculously overstated, as when Brooke describes her high school unpopularity as “my own personal Kristallnacht” or Jay claims he lost college internships because of “anti-white Affirmative Action bias,” Solondz manages to never lose a thread of sincerity in his portrayal of these characters. They truly think they’re good people, which makes their harmful, solipsistic behavior all the more chilling.
Brittany barely speaks throughout the majority of the play, but Solondz keeps her in view, using her in an ingeniously theatrical manner. As the locales change – from Jay and Brooke’s tony apartment to Brittany’s sad bedsit, to the sunny resort where the couple retreat to escape the stress of firing Brittany – Love physically shifts the scenery, her movements growing more labored and deliberate as the play wears on. The device brilliantly represents how dependent Jay and Brooke are on her grudging, silent labor – and how wealthy, white society on the whole functions on the backs of its poorest workers. Brittany’s input is hardly noticed. She is the invisible hand that keeps life churning forward, always expected but never acknowledged.
Solondz has trod this ground before; in fact, a major plot point of Storytelling, his underrated 2001 film, hinges on the mistreatment of a foreign housekeeper (played by the late, great Lupe Ontiveros) by her white employers. And just as in that film – which ends with the housekeeper poisoning the family with carbon monoxide after they wrongfully fire her – he gives Brittany the last word, in an unsettling monologue that Love performs with the level of gallows humor we’ve come to expect. Offering a jailhouse confession to a journalist (the excellent Rita Wolf) writing a book about her life, she explains how she came to settle the score with Jay and Brooke.
Of course, she doesn’t see it that way. The terrible act that landed Brittany in prison, to her, was noble and necessary. Solondz balances cold calculation meant to turn the audience against Brittany with shades of trenchant humor that help us understand her motives, and Love performs the speech with frightening conviction. The weight she has been forced to carry throughout the play makes the unthinkable seem strangely justifiable. But Solodnz isn’t interested in hagiography. Brittany, like everyone else, has a capacity for evil inside her; that she is also a victim only amplifies the idea that we can all cause destruction and pain when given the opportunity. His pessimism remains firmly in place.