Donald Margulies is a multiple award winning playwright and a Pulitzer Prize winner in 2000 for his play “Dinner with Friends”. Not only is he a very prolific journeyman playwright with fourteen plays in his canon, he is also a screenwriter and television series developer and writer.
A recurring them that runs throughout his work is his interest in plays involving the motif of ‘identities’ and its interactions with his characters. I’ve seen six of his plays over the years. But nothing prepared me for this stunningly deep, and at times, the dark and powerful narrative present in his current play “The Model Apartment”, now performing at the Geffen Playhouse on the intimate (approximately 110 seats) Audrey Skirball Kenis stage.
Cleverly directed by Marya Mazor, “The Model Apartment”, abounds in metaphors and symbolisms. We are not quite sure what course Margulies and director Ms. Mazor has set for the audience in the first five minutes. Is it a comedy (the audience laughed and lot at some of the action and stage business right from curtain up?) or is it a serious piece?
Max and Lola are senior 60’s something Holocaust survivors, nicely played by Michael Mantell and Marilyn Fox, who have sold their Brooklyn home and have moved to Florida to spend their golden years. “I just want to sit in the sun and read my Wall Street Journal with a drink by my side”, says Max. Lola agrees. She is a loving, compliant, naive wife, however they have a fey quality about them indicating that there’s more about them than meets the eye.
For those who say, oh this is going to be another holocaust play. Not so fast. Yes, it is a holocaust play, but with a different POV. The play’s action is set in motion with the unexpected arrival of their 30 year-old mentally-challenged daughter Debby (Annika Marks), in the middle of the night, along with her boyfriend Neil, a young fifteen year-old African/American homeless boyfriend from Brooklyn played by Giovanni Adams.
Max and Lola are stunned to see Debby suddenly appear on the doorstep of the model apartment they’re renting while their condo is being completed. They have been unable to handle her even after years of institutional treatment and visits to the finest of doctors, as Max later explains.
Guilt comes in many forms. For holocaust survivors there’s often a lasting self-loathing that haunts them. The why-am-I-still-here feeling is palpable. There will always be parents unable to care for or deal with their mentally challenged adult/children. They have demons of their own that match their offspring’ issues that also require understanding. Post Traumatic Syndrome Disease (PTSD) is a term we understand today but not in the 1980’s.
As holocaust survivors, Max and Lola are not in denial over Debby, they have just decided they need to get away from her for their sanity and leave her to fend for herself back in Brooklyn. Harsh as it may sound, survival is the key element of their DNA. How Margulies’ characters come to grips with the psychological dilemma that impacts so many survivors and their children and even their grandchildren, is at the heart of this powerful drama.
There are scenes where each character relates his or her dream sequences to the audience. The most affecting of these is when Deborah (also played by Annika Marks), Max and Lola’s oldest daughter who died in the holocaust, reappears to reassure Max that she now has plenty of food to eat and is happy to be sharing a perpetual Pesach with her relatives from the camps. It’s a powerful moment that is deeply affecting. One could hear a pin drop in the audience the night I attended.
One may take issue with the crafting of the play and the choices Margulies makes, but no one can deny the absolutely astonishing Geffen debut performance of Ms. Marks. It is a tour de force effort born of two talented creative individuals – Ms. Marks and director Mazor. It may be visually off-putting as depicted on stage but it is intellectually stimulating when reflecting on this particular production over a cup of coffee in the comfort of one’s home or at a late night restaurant with a theatre companion.
In the technical department, the creative team led by director Mazor, along with Scenic Designer Tom Buderwitz, nicely provides the one room set of a 1980’s Florida condominium complex. Lighting Designer Brian Gale’s provides the right amount of light to see and appreciate the costume designs of Sara Ryung Clement, whose costuming of Ms. Marks characters of Debby/Deborah allows the backstage dressers to perform costume changes with lightning speed. Composer and Sound Designer Lindsay Jones completes the creative team. The play is performed without an intermission and runs approximately 90 minutes.
“The Model Apartment” performs at The Geffen Playhouse, Audrey Skirball Kenis stage, and runs through November 20, 2016.