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Off Broadway

Play, boy

A few words with Max Wolf Friedlich, whose new two-person play, Job, has New Yorkers reaching for the Xanax.

Here’s my advice to anyone seeing Job, the sweaty-palm-inducing work starring Peter Friedman (Succession) and Sydney Lemmon (Helstrom): Don’t get dinner beforehand.

First, because the subject—a faceoff between a Gen Z content moderator who traffics in the world’s horrors, and an eerily cocky Boomer therapist—might make you a little queasy. But second: you will want to go out afterwards and argue about the ending. Is someone delusional? Is someone a monster? And what about that gun? 

There is a lot of there there. Vulture’s critic called Job “a horror piece—a Black Mirror episode with the sci fi dialed down (because the horrors are real).”

To call the playwright a wunderkind would probably make Max Wolf Friedlich roll his eyes, though he’d enjoy it just the same. The now-29-year old Manhattanite has been writing plays since he was eight. “I had a lot of problems reading when I was young, he says. But I loved theater, so my parents would take me to a play and then I’d get the script in the lobby.” Knowing the material lessened his anxiety about reading, and “gradually I got better.”

Peter Friedman and Sydney Lemmon performing in Max Wolf Friedman’s play Job
Peter Friedman (Succession) and Sydney Lemmon (Helstrom) performing in Friedlich’s Job, desribed by Vulture as “a horror piece—a Black Mirror episode with the sci fi dialed down (because the horrors are real)”. Photo by Emilio Madrid

His parents also sent him to a live action role playing (LARP) camp. Let’s put it this way: compared to LARP camp, drama camp is for the cool kids. “You are actually staying in character six to eight hours a day, in costume, Friedlich explains. “You’re creating a world, but just for yourself and your friends.” You’re in the woods. There are a lot of assassins.

To succeed at playwrighting, it helps to be the cosseted only child of ying-yang parents: his father (Jim Friedlich, a media and philanthropy executive) the unequivocal booster, and his mother (Melissa Stern, an artist), the critic. Max would proudly show her his work as a little kid “and she’d be like, ‘This is not very good.’” That wasn’t . . . soul-crushing? Friedlich grins. “Well, she’s an artist herself, and she just really taught me from watching her how to work and how to be defeated, and then how to get back up.

Friedlich has a sweet, soulful face, and the general demeanor of a rumpled, easygoing hipster. But his work has always been dark.

“I think she just took me seriously at a very young age, Friedlich added, “which is the most supportive thing you can do for a kid.”

Friedlich has a sweet, soulful face, and the general demeanor of a rumpled, easygoing hipster. But his work has always been dark. For his eighth grade class at Friends Seminary in Manhattan, he wrote a play about a glory hole in a dive bar upstate where Jesus was giving hand jobs. (In a testament to the forbearance of NYC private schools, Friedlich’s teacher told Max the play was fantastic . . . but didn’t forget to alert his parents.)

He first got public acclaim with SleepOver, about two wealthy high school kids—one white and one black—who don’t know each other well but end up on a sleepover that lasts two weeks: “It’s about heartbreak and loss and how you don’t ever know what other people are going through,” Friedlich says; he became the youngest person, at 17, ever to have a play produced at the New York Fringe Festival.

After attending Wesleyan, Friedlich moved to LA to try his hand at TV writing. When those jobs didn’t materialize, he made a living ghost-tweeting for celebrities and being, well, a famous woman on the internet: He was the personality behind the computer-generated influencer Lil Miquela, who had millions of followers and, despite being decidedly non human, was named one of Time’s “25 Most influential people on the Internet” in 2018. 

Job grapples, quite brilliantly, with what social media giveth, and what it taketh away.

Friedlich continued working on plays and, that same year, met a content moderator at a party in San Francisco whose job was, essentially, to find and extinguish the most awful material slung on the Internet: the child porn, the animal cruelty, the snuff films. “Her company paid for her therapy, which I thought was a strange tacit acknowledgement that what they were doing, what they were subjecting her to, was inhumane.” But that conversation was the inspiration for Job, which grapples, quite brilliantly, with what social media giveth, and what it taketh away.

With all the attention for Job has come, inevitably, the interest of Hollywood, which is why Friedlich is Zooming in from “an undisclosed location” (translation: a friend’s apartment.) He had to leave his Brooklyn home, and his girlfriend, and everything familiar, to get into what he calls “the generative groove.” “When you feel isolated, you get excited by newness again, even if the newness is, like, a new Whole Foods,” he says. He is not 100 percent sure of his next move, though he’s hoping it involves one of the dozens of meetings he’s taken with Hollywood suits. But his immediate summer plans? That’s easy: LARP camp. 

Since the pandemic, he’s been working as a counselor at the place he first learned to love the idea of the transformative effect of theater. “I asked myself what made me really happy,” he said, “And this was it.”

Hero photo of Max Wolf Friedlich by Stefan Kohli

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