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A CurtainUp Review
The Model Apartment
By Elyse Sommer
Joshua Harmon's Bad Jews is a smart, laugh a minute dark comedy with some serious underpinnings. Jack Canfora's < Jericho, which is also at the 59th Street complex, is a serious drama that happens to have a lot of laughs. The Model Apartment, starts with a few chuckles but, quickly turns so serious that it's almost too painful to watch.
Though Margulies ranks high on my list of fine contemporary playwrights, I can't say that his troubled early play has blossomed into a misunderstood and unfairly neglected treasure whose time has finally come. The 1996 production, also by Primary Stages, was not without its fans and even won an OBIE. However, the playwright's surreal treatment of the Holocaust's effect on its survivors as well as their chilren, was too tough and obscure to enjoy the success of subsequent Margulies plays like his Pulitzer prize winning Dinner With Friends , The Model Apartment remains a more painful than poignant experience=
I didn't see the play at Primary Stages' old home on West 45th Street but a number of audience members who did commented that they saw no script changes, or at least no noticeable ones, in the current version. Thus the "new production" label in the advance publicity applies to the director, cast and design elements. All are flawless, so the problem is with the play itself.
The story line revolves around Lola (Kathryn Grody) and Max (Mark Blum), an elderly Jewish couple, both of whom survived the Holocaust to live in Brooklyn and accumulate enough money to buy a retirement home in Florida. They arrive before their apartment in a new home complex is ready so the realtors have put them up temporarily, hopefully for just one night, in a studio that's one of their model apartments. As designed by Lauren Helpern, the apartment looks comfortable enough. But nothing is what it seems: The appliances don't work, decorative items are glued down.
This setup clarifies the title, but not why Lola and Max appear to be different from your typical New York-to-Florida retirees. Their move from from Brooklyn to the sunshine state evokes an eerie feeling of escape from something or someone. This is underscored by their references to an unnamed "she" and Max's excessive distress at finding himself in a small, non-function place rather than the spacious, well appointed home of their dreams. Sure enough, the night we spend with them in that neat but still not livable model apartment soon turns from comic displacement into a surreal nightmare with the arrival and identification of that mysterious "she."
Margulies is a gifted and sensitive writer and while those gifts are evident in this early work, he's not Harold Pinter, the theater's master at building a powerful sense of menace out of a naturalistic situation. Margulies's story certainly begins naturalistically enough and it does evolve into a surreal nightmare, with the arrival of the mysterious"she" — their all too real, emotionally disturbed and grossly obese daughter Debby (Diane Davis). This nightmarish turn of events is more manic and sad than menacingly edgy. The symbolism pertaining to the move to Florida and Debby's obesity is rather obvious. It doesn't take an advanced degree in psychology to figure out that Debby is not only the embodiment but the extension of her parents' hellish past.
Jenny Mannis does an award-worthy job of making Diane Davis's Debby look as authentically huge as Shuler Hensley did in last season's The Whale . Davis is actually a slim young woman and in that guise is an occasional ethereal presence named Deborah in Max's dreams. Her portrayal of the wildly out of control child-woman is quite amazing. Eventually her bizarre behavior gets to be too much, but her enraged rants do drive home the playwright's point about the never ending and far-reaching disastrous after effects of a horror like the Holocaust.
Kathryn Grody and Mark Blum are well cast as Lola and Max. Their typical couple of a certain age is imbued with emotional depth, and expertly seasoned with glimpses of the shadows lurking around the edges of their surface ordinariness. Director Evan Cabnet sees to it that Hubert Point-Du Jour neither under or overplays the small part of Debby's homeless and clueless boyfriend.
When all is said and done, The Model Apartment is a play with an always worthy theme and not without merit. But ambiguity and surrealism simply aren't this wonderful playwright's strongest suit.