‘The Model Apartment’
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‘The Model Apartment’

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Diane Davis plays two roles. Here, she is the daughter her father, played by Mark Blum, lost to the Shoah.

When Max and Lola step into the 1980s model apartment where they are to spend several days until their own Florida retirement condo is ready for them, they are blown away by the luxury in front of them.

Beautiful furniture, big TV set, the works.

Then they discover that it’s all just for show – the refrigerator has no plug, the television has no guts, the tchotchkes are glued down. Nothing works. That’s the first clue that in “The Model Apartment” things are not quite what they seem. Donald Margulies’ 1995 Obie-winning play, now in revival at Primary Stages, 59 East 59th Street, may appear to be a traditional domestic drama at first, but it is not that at all. Rather, it is a darkly comic treatment of the impact of the Holocaust on the Jews, the burden that can never be thrown off.

Max and Lola have traveled from Brooklyn to their idea of heaven, a retirement development in Florida. Speaking accented English, with the particular combination of fear and grievance that is characteristic of Holocaust survivors, they gingerly examine their new temporary home. “We are entitled, no?” Lola asks, when surveying her new digs, after what they’ve been through. Played by Obie Award winning actress Kathryn Grody, Lola is an attractive woman still attracted to her husband, whom she is accustomed to manipulating through kvetching and flattery. Max (Mark Blum) is more reserved, a man who simply wants to be able to read his Wall Street Journal in peace. Once he sees that the apartment is just a front, he goes grumpily to sleep. He doesn’t call the agent or demand another place where the appliances work. His response is to hunker down and wait.

A knock at the door soon reveals what Max and Lola thought they were leaving behind in Brooklyn. Debbie, their obese, mentally ill daughter, has followed them to Florida. She barges in, making it clear that she plans to stay. Lola keeps warning that there is no food, but Debbie begins chomping on the dry cereal they bought for breakfast. Diane Davis imbues Debbie with the manic energy and almost thoughtless innocence of an uncontrollable child. “You can’t run away from me,” she cries, as if they were all playing a game.

But that’s exactly what Max and Lola are trying to do, just as American and Israeli Jews tried to escape the knowledge of the Holocaust for decades before they gave up and began to tame it through sanctification and sentimentality. Debbie won’t be tamed, however. When her young homeless African-American boyfriend shows up, they start to have sex right then and there. When Lola tells the story of her friendship with Anne Frank in Bergen Belsen, Debbie mockingly fills in every other sentence. This is a story she has heard many times before. In fact, Debbie has her own stories to tell, her own Nazi fantasies. “I remember things I never saw,” she says. “Hiding from the Nazis … night after night… waiting for the Nazis to come.”

The set design by Lauren Halpern perfectly captures the bland charm of 1980s senior housing, and costume designer Jenny Mannis outdoes herself with Davis’s fat suit. Without that costume, Davis portrays Dvoirah, the daughter Max lost in the Holocaust, the perfect daughter who comes to him in dreams. His living daughter is his nightmare, the receptacle of all his own nightmares.

Margulies has gone on to write much more naturalistic, popular plays such as “Collected Stories,” “Sight Unseen,” and “Dinner with Friends,” for which he won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. His earlier work was more experimental, and “The Model Apartment” falls into that group. With its shifts in time, its mixing of living and dead characters, its altering tone of tragedy and comedy, the play is less tidy.

One of the strangest scenes is among the most potent. Lola reminisces about her friendship with Anne Frank in concentration camp, when she encouraged the Dutch teen to keep another diary about their experiences. “I was a big character in this book,” Lola boasts. “I gave her the strength to live.” Just two young girls sharing secrets and bread crusts, trying to fill the long, idle hours. This is the perfect sendup of the mythmaking around Anne Frank, the grandiosity of some survivors, the need to turn the worst of the world into a story, something with meaning.

Less than an hour and a half long, “The Model Apartment” is filled with more such intriguing, discomfiting insights than many other much-longer Holocaust productions.

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Diane Davis plays two roles. Here, she is the daughter her father, played by Mark Blum, lost to the Shoah.
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