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The ‘Rorschach Test Possibility of Theater’: An interview with Job playwright Max Wolf Friedlich

By Katie Devin Orenstein

Max Wolf Friedlich made a splash this fall with the world premiere of his play JOB. Starring Sydney Lemmon (Tár) and Peter Friedman (Succession), and directed by Friedlich’s longtime collaborator Michael Herwitz, the psychological thriller about tech workers in San Francisco, opened last October at Soho Playhouse. Now, the new play moves to the Connelly Theatre beginning on January 19th. 

We recently spoke to Max about his inspirations, from Martin McDonagh to AI Instagram influencers, and how the production hopes to bring new audiences to the Off-Broadway space. 

JOB playwright Max Wold Friedlich. Photo by Nikky Ayra

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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Congratulations on the upcoming remount of Job at the Connelly! I’d love to know your influences, and how this script began. 

Max Wolf Friedlich 

I think at my core, it was growing up seeing Conor McPherson plays and Martin McDonagh plays, and Jez Butterworth and Sarah Kane, very British [and] Irish. Dark, twisty, supernatural, perverted, surreal, but also very real, often with a horror element. I think those were the things that as a kid were really foundational, and they are the kind of writer I still aspire to be.

Job is not the most autobiographical work. I started writing it as part of a theater development group in LA in fall of 2019. We were really actively working on it until the final preview that we locked. This past summer, we did a week-long workshop, where going in the script was 14 pages longer [than it is now.]

BBS

That was a very fruitful workshop if you cut 14 pages! Congratulations.

MWF

Thank you! I have worked with our director, Michael Herwitz, and our dramaturg-slash-producer Hannah Getts for many years. I write the plays, but we really develop [them] as a core trio. To be honest, it was pretty seamless. Where the play comes from is twofold. One is, I met someone at a party who had the job that is portrayed in the show, working in content moderation [for social media.] And the other element of it was, I worked for this very strange tech company that built fictional influencers, the most famous of which was called Lil Miquela

So I have the strange experience of being a famous woman on the internet by playing this character professionally. The parts of the play that are really autobiographical are like, when you have 1.3 million followers, and you’re portraying a 19-year-old young woman–I didn’t mainline the internet the same way that the character in the play does–but, I could look at my phone any hour of the day, and someone [would be] saying something really heartfelt, or really disturbing, or very weird, or, you know, “I’m in the Philippines, I love your fashion.” That’s crazy. It’s literally me, you know? 

BBS

That sounds like a truly surreal experience.

MWF

Really ran the gamut from Martin McDonagh to fake influencers. Yeah.

BBS

I’m imagining you at eight years old, just reading The Pillowman.

MWF

Maybe not eight, but probably…10. Yeah.

BBS

What was the theatrical experience that got you from a general interest in theater to playwriting?

MWF

I was a really self-conscious kid, which is why my mom suggested that I try acting. I really didn’t enjoy being on stage in that way. I didn’t like being told what to do. And then I wrote a Christmas play that I won’t disclose the details of because I picked it up again recently, like 10 years later, and it’s the next play that I want to do [after JOB.] It was a very perverse Christmas play. And my eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Byrne, was like, “I need to tell your parents about this. Because this is disgusting.” And also, “This is great, and you should keep going.”

JOB at Soho Playhouse. Photo by Emilio Madrid

BBS

The play takes place in a therapist’s office. And without saying too much, it is about a woman, Jane, who has been deeply traumatized. The show is constantly questioning mental health care, its relationship to being a participant in labor, and then also how trauma functions [in the brain]. 

MWF

Yeah. I did very little research into the actual job. That is encapsulated in the fact that it used to be fairly obvious that Jane worked at a very specific company. And then we were like, well, we’re not really doing the due diligence. We’re not representing these people. So the play is really an accentuated hyperbolic version of what it is to be on the internet. The experience of being online and growing up online is so ubiquitous that we don’t think of ourselves as having our brain chemistry altered and having seen traumatic images and had experiences that we shouldn’t have had, due to our access to the internet. 

There’s a lot of my own relationship with therapy too, which is I think a very uneasy one. I don’t go, not currently, but, I have historically gone. I think therapy is good. But I’ve always been unnerved by that relationship and being like, Who is this person? What have they done? I had a therapist once who, anytime I’d mention something in my relationship, he would be like, “women can be really difficult.” And then I found out through our setting [that] he was divorced. And I was like, “Okay, you’re kind of bringing your own stuff.”

I’m more interested in the Rorschach test possibility of theater, rather than being like, this is where I want you to get to. I think anything people take away from it is something that I’m cool with.

BBS

You’ve spoken about how this play is about and for young people. Can you tell me more about how Job is trying to show young people that theater can be about them?

MWF

I’m an avid theater goer. I grew up in New York and have seen a s***load of theater, and I simply don’t see a lot of things that address our generation’s experience. And I think that that can exist across lines of race and gender and sexuality. JOB is really about our modern relationship with labor. First and foremost, it’s a play about how Millennials and Gen Z see work and see their role in the world. We were really conscious [of that] in our branding. We used photographers and graphic designers who typically work in music editorial, because we didn’t want it to look like a play. Which – accessibility means a number of things, right? There’s very tangible things like ticket prices. And then there’s things in the middle. How do we actually reach this audience? You can make your ticket prices as low as you want but if the content isn’t for the demographic that it seeks to reach, and if you’re not reaching them, then there’s no way to get them there. It’s little things. I’m a huge advocate of saying, “hey, doors at 6:30, show’s at 7”, because, when young people go see music, and it says the show’s at 7, the show is never actually at 7. It lets people know that this is for them, that there aren’t tricky rules that they don’t understand. As a young person seeing theater when I was 10, or 11 or 12, I was made very aware that I was an outlier in those spaces. I don’t want 10 year olds coming to see JOB, to be clear! 

BBS

Ha, yeah, I was going to say.

JOB starts performances at the Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th St, January 19th, and runs through March 3rd. $32-$127. 

Categories
Broadway's Best

Broadway’s Best Horror/Thriller Shows

While the horror and thriller genres are typically reserved for the screen, Broadway can sometimes be a spooky place, where audiences have been left with their hearts racing, for one reason or another. Just like in film, horror theater productions often use their thrills and chills as social critiques. Read on if you dare…

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Theater’s ability to comment on social issues while leaving audiences breathless and entertained might just have reached its pinnacle with the nightmarish Sweeney Todd. It’s class warfare via cannibalism, when a barber back in London after 15 years of wrongful imprisonment starts killing those responsible while shaving them, and since the price of meat is otherwise too high (“times is hard”), his downstairs neighbor bakes the bodies into pies. Maybe the most horrifying part of Sweeney is how, as we learn about the wrongs committed against Mr. Todd and his wife and daughter, they’re just so awful that his string of murders feels almost…reasonable? It’s that moral dilemma that writers Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler explore in the show. Sweeney Todd came back to Broadway in spring 2023, in a Tony-nominated revival starring Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford. 

Grey House

Photo by MurphyMade

The first play of the 2023-2024 Broadway season, Grey House intentionally pulls from the American horror film oeuvre. Set during a blizzard in an isolated cabin inhabited by weird and precocious children, a collection of horror movie tropes that the play’s script acknowledges, the production utilizes jumpscares, eerie underscoring, and innovative special effects and makeup to scare theatergoers.

1984

This adaptation of the George Orwell novel was infamously gory–it made Broadway audiences faint and throw up during its run in the summer of 2017. It used the book’s political dystopia as a basis for intense horror, divoting almost a third of its runtime to the ‘torture room’ sequences, unlike anything seen on Broadway before. 

The Pillowman

This 2004 murder mystery made playwright Martin McDonough a household name, with an incredibly dark story of a series of gruesome child murders that are eerily similar to the work of a murder mystery novelist. Particularly shocking to audiences was that, somehow, this play was also funny. 

The Humans

On the surface, Stephen Karam’s 2016 play might seem like a typical Jewish American family drama, set at a contentious Thanksgiving dinner. But something else is lurking in this Chinatown walk-up apartment, as the floors start to creak. While it’s left ambiguous, there are some forces in The Humans that might not be, well…human.

Angel Street

Have you ever wondered, where did the term “gaslighting” come from? Its source is the 1938 play Gaslight, which premiered in New York in 1941 titled Angel Street, and was later a 1944 Hollywood film. On Broadway in 1941, Vincent Price played Mr. Manningham, a London aristocrat who secretly turns the gas lights in his mansion lower and lower over time for nefarious reasons– but when his wife Bella asks him, he says the lights haven’t been lowered, making her lose her mind. 

Sleep No More

Though not on Broadway, New York theatergoers have this McKittrick mainstay on the menu for their ghostly cravings. This immersive take on Macbeth lets you roam the halls of this abandoned hotel-turned-performance venue, which also has other productions besides Sleep No More running from time to time. 

Little Shop of Horrors

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken used tropes from B horror movies and creature features from the 1950s to create Little Shop, a parable about a poor flower shop assistant on Skid Row who raises a mysterious carnivorous plant he names after his crush, Audrey. A revival directed by Michael Mayer has been running off-Broadway at the Westside Theater since 2019, with a revolving door of stage notables playing Seymour, Audrey, and Orin the Dentist. Joy Woods of Six stars as Audrey – here’s her singing “Somewhere That’s Green” with Menken on the piano.

Across the pond, London audiences have had their fair share of scare with the following shows.

2:22: A Ghost Story

A woman hears noises through her baby monitor every night at 2:22 AM. She and her husband invite two close friends over to stay up and try to figure out what’s going on, and to prove that it’s not a ghost. That’s the concept for 2:22: A Ghost Story, which finished successful runs in the West End in 2021 and 2022, as well as Los Angeles in Fall 2022– it might even start terrifying Broadway audiences soon. 

The Woman in Black

This play by Stephen Mallatratt ran continuously in London from 1989 to 2023, for a total of 13,232 performances. It’s a chilling tale of a ghostly apparition and family trauma in Northern England, with a cast of only three actors playing dozens of parts.