'Emma and Max,' a Nanny's Life in Satire and Tragedy at the Flea

From left: Zonya Love, Matt Servitto, Ilana Becker in a scene from "Emma and Max." Photo: Joan Marcus

Oct. 16, 2018

Be prepared to laugh, cringe and gasp in equal measure at Todd Solondz’s stage play, “Emma and Max,” now playing at The Flea Theater. The film writer and director’s first foray into theater delves into the fraught world of parents and nannies and the deeply intimate, yet transactional relationship it creates.

Don’t expect Mary Poppins—this is satire and tragedy mixed together with very pertinent if uncomfortable results.

Firing your help is one of the privileges and worst moments for those who can afford it. You’ve allowed this person into your home and let them take care of your most precious possessions, your kids. But when it comes to the end of the road, it’s rarely an easy conversation. Solondz captures the inequality of the employee-nanny relationship with astringent awkwardness as Brooke and Jay (played excellently by Illana Becker and Matt Servitto) dismiss Britney, the permanently scowling Zonya Love.

These are rich people’s problems and you may feel you have observed parents like these eating brunch at restaurants in Tribeca where strollers line the sidewalk. Brooke is stressed out by the situation. “This is the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life,” she whines. The parents flounder with platitudes about how great Britney has been but she just stares back until they hand her some money. Add to this delicate conversation, the undercurrent of race. Britney is black and from Barbados; Brooke and Jay are white.

In a theatrical device that underlines the servile relationship, Britney performs most of the scene changes on Julia Noulin-Mera’s adaptable set. She heaves open sliding doors to reveal by turns the couples’ bedroom, a resort in the Caribbean, and an airline cabin. She also installs the ladder for a swimming pool that is projected onto the floor, looking ready to jump in—a presage of things to come.

From time to time, Brooke and Jay chivvy her to hurry up or to move out of the way. It’s very effective and affecting as Britney is obviously suffering from all the heavy lifting. Other elements of the play, including the children’s bedroom, are projected onto to the back of the set.

Once the firing is done, Mr. Solondz revels in the couple’s guilt provoking laughs and disbelief from the audience. A key scene has Brooke expound on how she knows more about the black experience in the U.S. than Britney did because she had been fat as a child. “I know what it means to be marginalized,” she opines from her lounger in a cabana by the pool. Illana Becker’s nervous mannerisms and plaintive voice are perfect for the tone-deaf character.

In the second act, the play takes a darker tone. We are no longer laughing at the spoiled parents but are shocked by a turn of events ripped straight from the headlines. We find Britney in her prison cell where she recounts her miserable experiences as a nanny. But even here, Mr. Solondz manages to upend stereotypes and get some laughs as Britney imagines Meryl Streep playing her in the movie of her life. “Meryl Streep would understand me, Abba would do the soundtrack. I want the best,” she muses. Deeper and more poignant reflections on race ensue and the play doesn’t shy away from calling out our collective bigotry.

Known for his misanthropic portrayals of American suburban life in his movies (“Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Storytelling,” “Palindromes”) Solondz’s has adapted his lens deftly for the stage. With the support of this strong cast, we can only hope the writer/director will return his focus to the theater again in near the future.

Emma and Max, written and directed by Todd Solondz, plays through Oct. 28 at The Flea Theatre, 20 Thomas St. The cast includes: Ilana Becker, Deborah S. Craig, Zonya Love and Matt Servitto.