It was anything but a model production. Soon after Donald Margulies’ Holocaust-themed black comedy, “The Model Apartment,” premiered Off Broadway at Primary Stages in 1995, its lead actor, Paul Stolarsky, repeatedly called in sick and then abruptly left the company. Another actor stepped in and, script in hand, tried to rescue the production. But the play’s run had been compromised, despite positive reviews, including one from Ben Brantley of The New York Times that called it a “glowing reminder of the particular pungency and intelligence” of Margulies’ work. Now, hoping for better luck, the same company is reviving the play; it opens next Tuesday evening in Midtown.
Directed by Evan Cabnet, “The Model Apartment” is the tale of Max (Mark Blum) and Lola (Kathryn Grody), an elderly Brooklyn Jewish couple, both Holocaust survivors, who arrive in Florida for their long-awaited retirement only to discover that their condo is not yet ready. While they wait to take occupancy, they stay in the development’s showpiece unit, where all the appliances turn out to be fake. But the real crisis occurs when their emotionally disturbed, morbidly obese middle-aged daughter, Debby (Diane Davis), whom they have left in an institution, shows up and demands that they continue to take care of her, as well as her teenage African-American boyfriend, Neil (Hubert Point-Du Jour). The play asks searching questions about whether the past can ever be completely buried or escaped.
Since the ill-fated original production of “The Model Production,” Margulies has established himself as one of the country’s leading dramatists. In 2000, he won a Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner with Friends,” which will be revived this year by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Many of his other plays, including “The Loman Family Picnic,” “Sight Unseen” and “Brooklyn Boy” focus on Jewish themes, especially father-son relationships in Jewish families. “The Model Apartment” differs from these other plays in its focus on a daughter’s relationship with her parents, and in its more surrealistic approach. The play also broke new ground in its depiction of the effect of the Holocaust on the second generation.
Cabnet worked with Margulies, who teaches playwriting at Yale, on a 2008 production of “Shipwrecked — An Entertainment,” a play by Margulies about a man who survives a disaster only to find that fame is fleeting despite his attempts to maintain his notoriety. The director told The New York Times that “The Model Apartment” is an “unsung gem,” that has finally found its moment to shine.
“The Model Apartment” is, Margulies told The Jewish Week, his “problem child,” a play that never got the recognition that it deserved. Part of the reason the production failed the first time, the playwright speculated, was that audiences were “not yet ready for a play that did not treat the Holocaust as sacrosanct.”
The playwright recalled that he was inspired to create the character of the daughter by a famous 1970 Diane Arbus photo of a grotesque, giant son whose middle-class Bronx Jewish parents are looking up at him with awe and consternation. The daughter embodies the Holocaust and its victims as a product, Margulies said, of “all the Holocaust imagery that she was fed by her parents.” Margulies called her a “potent, larger-than-life creation, a receptacle for the horror of her parents’ experience.”
Florida represents a kind of “promised land” for the parents, Margulies pointed out, a “stand-in for America” and a haven from the overwhelming pain that they have experienced in their lives. But, he continues, this “place in the sun for their sunset years” turns out to be quite different from what they bargained for. He say’s it’s “filled with artifice — the setting for a serial comic nightmare that will demand all their resiliency and resourcefulness in order to overcome.” As Margulies has put it, “this isn’t your bubbe’s Holocaust play.”
For Mark Blum, who plays Max, the apartment is, he told The Jewish Week, a “façade that hides emptiness.” It’s the emptiness that the retired couple is bringing along as it embarks “on a new chapter of their lives without coming to terms with what — or whom — they are leaving behind.” Max has spent his life fleeing reality, beginning from his time hiding out in the woods from the Nazis. Blum views the play as about a host of issues that are universal in scope, including the way in which people deal with trauma and the responsibility that parents have to avoid inflicting their own trauma on their children — issues that, he said, Max and Lola have “danced around all of their lives” and which they deal with in divergent ways that sow the seeds for profound marital discord.
Grody, who plays Lola, is even less convinced that “The Model Apartment” is a Holocaust play per se, even though her character obsessively retells the story, which may or may not be true, of Anne Frank dying in her arms. (In an intriguing example of life imitating art, a number of survivors in recent years have claimed to have known the young diarist in the camps.) “My son came to see the play; he observed that the parents victimize the daughter and the daughter victimizes them back. The daughter gets her lack of boundaries from her mother, who lacks boundaries in a different way.”
The actress called the play a “delicate, tragic comedy with an ironic title — the model apartment is supposed to be a perfect place, but all kinds of mayhem takes place there.” The overarching theme, Grody said, is “how people hope for all kinds of things for and from their children, and how their children surprise them — it’s about how people deal with the unexpected.”
Or as the director, Cabnet, put it, “It’s a play about survival — how far we’re willing to go to find safety, and what we’re willing to give up to get there.”
The new production thus vindicates the faith that Casey Childs, the founder and executive producer of Primary Stages, has had in the play. It shows, he said, the extraordinary range of Margulies’ talent. According to Childs, Margulies “hits colors and notes that aren’t in his other plays. It shows how rich and eclectic is this writer’s work.” The play “lulls you into a false sense of security,” he added. “It seems, at first, to be a cute little comedy. And then it just keeps getting darker and darker.”
“The Model Apartment” runs through Nov. 1 at 59E59, 59 E. 59th St. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. There is a single Wednesday matinee on Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. For tickets, $70, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.primarystages.org.