Mainlining the Internet with JOB’s Max Wolf Friedlich
We all kind of believe in the magic of the internet—but what happens when the curtain is lifted? Step inside 'JOB', New York’s buzziest new play by Max Wolf Friedlich.
By Ali Royals
Photos by Emilio Madrid
“My missions in life are getting young people to see theater, making theater accessible, and making the Internet fucking dumb again,” Max Wolf Friedlich is explaining to me over a symphony of Friday rush hour traffic outside Three of Cups in Soho.
His job has recently relocated to the neighborhood—quite literally. His play, JOB, just extended its limited run at the Soho Playhouse around the corner. Today, it won the New York Times Critic’s Pick. “I feel really strongly that it’s not the play that’s being celebrated, it’s the production,” he says. We’re here with Hannah Getts, Max’s (and JOB’s) effortless and brilliant dramaturg-producer-creative-director-partner. Both Max and Hannah agree they’re unsure if there’s a singular title that encapsulates all Hannah does for the play, but Max insists on one certainty: what Hannah is doing is pure artistry.
Max and Hannah’s partnership is effortless. They build upon each other’s thoughts with an ease akin to a quilt sprouting two arms and stitching itself together. The pair initially met in LA about filming a TV show. After meeting once, Hannah tossed out Max’s name to a producer seeking writers for a show about kids in New York. “I would’ve never been that nice,” Max jokes. Max got drinks with said producer. Hannah happened to be grabbing drinks at the same bar. The two took it as a sign to grab coffee and talk about work. “We were in a moment of feeling drawn to creating things ourselves and having more autonomy in our lives. We put on a reading of his play in a Chinatown gallery and felt like. Wow. This is what theater could be,” Hannah says.
Max Wolf Friedlich is not a playwright. Or so he says. I first met him on the infamous rooftop of the Brooklyn Center for Theater Research, where he and Brooks Hudgins of Private Browsing were coming to talk about play promo strategy with the Center’s very own Matthew Gasda. The pair was taking a decidedly different nightlife-promoter approach to marketing the play. Social innovations in theater are more exciting to Max than specific partnerships. “I loved what Jeremy O. Harris did with Black Out Nights. It was incredibly revolutionary. It’s really about setting an intention.” Max and Hannah’s intention is to keep bringing young people—or those who are wary of the theater—to the theater. It’s not unlike campaigning for an election. “You don’t win an election by winning your base or your opposition,” Max says, pouring milk into tea. “You win by galvanizing the people who don’t vote.”
But JOB is, inherently, a play for young people. It’s a Millennial v. Boomer showdown—their boxing ring is a perfectly staged therapist’s office that wouldn’t be out of place on an IKEA sales floor. It’s an artistic inquiry into the Internet and the insidious ways it weasels itself inside of us—that parasite that pirates our patterns of speech, signals our virtues (or lack thereof), determines our elections. It’s a part-thriller-part-horror period piece set in a 2020 pre-covid America, a claustrophobic fractal that flickers between digital and physical (un)realities. With JOB, Max asks the question: What would happen if you mainlined the internet?
“The limits of theater open up stories to so much creativity,” Max explains. “Anything is possible. But at the same time, very little is possible.” Choosing theater as the medium for the show leant itself to the ambiguous morality of both characters, forcing you to decide how you truly feel about them. For Max, thinking about the process too much “feels too much like thinking about breathing too much. Like, wait. Am I doing this?” But Hannah jumps in to remind him: “I remember you saying very early on: I want to write a two-hander one-act play. There was something challenging to you about that performance.”
The show stars Peter Friedman as Lloyd (widely known as Frank from Succession) and Sydney Lemmon as Jane (known for her roles in both Succession and Tàr.) Friedman has a reputation for his interest in up-and-coming playwrights in the New York scene; Max and Hannah initially met him through one of their producers, Russell Kahn, and knew Sydney through their real friends at Fake Friends. There was an impassioned letter written to Peter, a brief audition process for both, but Hannah knows “it was always the writing” that got the stars to sign on.
If there’s one thing Hannah could tell the world about Max as a person—besides his singular work ethic and drive—is that he’s truly, absolutely hilarious. As a writer, Max is supremely funny: deadpan, hyperbolic, perfection in voice, style, and sharpness. His bar for brilliance is shows like Fleabag and CircleJerk. “Spiritually, interrogating why people laugh is so interesting to me,” he explains of his personal identification as a comedian moreso than a playwright.
You can feel the widespread modern horrors that seep through the plot of the play as strongly as you can feel the throughline of Max’s humor. It’s almost like the audience is simultaneously wondering if they have permission to laugh at the strikingly dark admissions of the characters on stage while fully unable to stop the howls erupting from the pits of their stomachs. As an audience member, laughing at a character’s misfortune binds you to the moral implications of that character’s fate. It informs how you feel about them—and their suffering. A moment in JOB that struck me as so precisely modern was the sound team’s decision to play a video clip—the viral video clip that circulates when Jane has a very public freakout in her workplace—straight off of Jane’s iPhone. The moment shreds through the silence of theater like a razor through butter, Jane’s screams ripping through the cold, quiet air.
“May I just say now how meta of an experience that was?” Hannah asks. “We never expected the video to get laughs in the play. But every night, it's gotten laughs. One of our sound designers had to get up in her face and film her to film the scene, and says she hears that scene and gets chills to the bone.” Everyone there that day has the sound of Sydney's screams seared into their brains forever. “The video in the world of the play being memeified speaks to the acceleration of the internet.” No one who experiences the trauma of witnessing a coworker going through a mental breakdown would be laughing during, or after, that moment. But someone seeing the moment out of context feels free to exploit that pain for clout. “There’s something so fascinating about that disconnect.”
Much of the inspiration from the play came from a similar disconnected digital-physical experience Max had while working for Brud (now Dapper Labs) and posting as Lil Miquela: a CGI influencer with 2.8 million followers who’s worth an estimated $10mil—and who does not actually exist. When he accidentally uploaded an unedited photo to her account—for three seconds—the mistake cost him a full 24 unadulterated hours flagging comments, blocking words, and doing damage control for the fictional female entity. “I was circuitously having the experience of being a famous woman on the internet. With millions of followers,” Max said of his time posing as the online influencer. His work at Brud was nothing more than creating a fictional woman of color, recapitulating social justice language to profit off of a digital likeness of a woman with no agency or autonomy so they could sell products online. “There was nothing girlboss about thirty people coming together to make this fictional woman sell shirts,” Max deadpans. He was eventually asked to relinquish his Lil Miquela duties in 2019.
The truth is that the Internet changed everything about our lives, and the world, in ways we still cannot fully comprehend. “It’s ubiquitous in our lives, but we still have no awareness that any video we see starts with someone intentionally stopping and starting the camera.” It’s not reality, but a curated simulation of reality—a digital time-warp that has accelerated the generational divides from 20-30 years to 4 or 5. “I just think Instagram is a space that should be transitioned into a space for fiction,” Max says. “I think it’s an amazing playground.”
Max grew up when the internet was genuinely unserious. It wasn’t a place to share your serious feelings “It was a place to be silly. That was in the DNA of it. But now we’ve transitioned this vehicle that was once a platform solely for sharing “i can haz cheeseburger” memes into a place that determines our elections. I would love for the internet to be dumb as shit again. It should not be a place where real discourse happens.”
There’s something satirically interesting to Hannah about the way millennials find life meaning in their work. “We are all searching for meaning in our work—and most of us are finding that it isn’t to be found in these outlets.” But make no mistake—Hannah Getts is both finding, and making, meaning in her work by redefining what it means to be a modern dramaturg.
The concept of dramaturgy most recently entered the theater-layperson’s vocabulary at the widely memed usage of a post-succession Jeremy Strong interview, in which he uses the phrase dramaturgically speaking. “Dramaturg” is a role that titularly and definitively feels archaic. Dramaturgs are comparable to cultural consultants—professional vibe checkers, if you will. While the role was once purely about fact checking and ensuring the nature of play is grounded in reality, many of today’s dramaturgs—particularly Hannah—do so much more.
“Everyone brings their own expertise,” Max explains, laughing about how the JOB team is as equally as talented as they are attractive. The “concerningly hot” production team each n has some extremely sexy hyphens tacked onto their names. There’s Russell Kahn, the “beautiful, smart, funny” technical producer. “When I talk about Russell, it sounds like I’m introducing him at his bat mitzvah. But that’s genuinely how I feel about him,” Max Jokes. There’s Michael Herwitz, the musical-obsessed director who Max credits with the play’s tight and zippy visual pacing. In a musical, “there’s no tributaries. It’s just the river. That’s the special sauce Michael brings to my writing.” There’s producer Danielle Perelman (of La La Land and Dear Evan Hanson) who’s seen into the belly of the beast of commercial theater. “She’s advocating for things we don’t think about because we live in DIY land,” says Max. There’s sound designers Jesse Char, the concert cellist who ran Apple conferencing for a decade, and Max Neely Cohen, the novelist-DJ-editor-tennis-player. There’s Scott Penner, Jeff Award Nominee, and Michelle Li, costume designer (Theater Camp, “Awkwafina is Nora From Queens.”)
The team brought the play to life from initial development workshops through the final night of previews. They spent a week workshopping the script at the Dramatists Guild Foundation, reading all day, rewriting all night. They hired a PR team. They did the photoshoot. They fundraised to make payroll. They started rehearsal, dove into tech week, all the while still intensely developing the script. They built the set, brought in the designers. “You don’t feel like the play is fully done but you have a paid audience coming every night. The timing of it all fully pushes you to do your best work and to get it together. And before you know it, the play is on its feet.”
Max Wolf Friedlich only writes plays for himself. He doesn’t believe the content of his plays can change the world (though the crowds who’ve sold out the entire run of the show may beg to differ.) “I believe in the power of theater to bring people together. I believe in sharing stories. I don’t know how to do anything else,” Max explains earnestly. Fortunately for us, he’ll probably never have to learn.