Though likely to prove a considerably harder sell than the playwright’s more audience-friendly later works, Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies’ 1988 The Model Apartment has been given a Geffen Playhouse intimate revival worth seeing for its all-around superb performances, direction, and design.
Initial chuckles may lull you into thinking you’re about to discover a little-known Neil Simon gem, elderly Brooklyn Jews Max (Michael Mantell) and Lola (Marilyn Fox) seemingly not all that far removed from Second Avenue prisoners Mel and Edna had that big-city couple opted to retire to sunnier Florida climes.
Deceptively cheery opening scenes have the vaguely Yiddish-accented Max and Lola oohing and aahing over the titular flat’s hi-fi, TV, ice-maker, and other assorted luxuries before discovering to their dismay that said accoutrements are either hollow, unpluggable, or in some other way merely there for show as the couple await completion of the one-bedroom condominium they’ll soon be calling home.
Things darken somewhat with the mention of a certain “she” whom the couple have left behind with over three thousand dollars in cash and check. “I couldn’t give her nothing,” Lola insists, before offering Max a reassuring “She’ll leave us alone.”
The “she” in question turns out to be the proverbial Visitor From Hell, an obese, unkempt mess of a young woman named Debby (Annika Marks), whose connection to Max and Lola I’ll leave for you to discover, as I will the particular inferno that has haunted the couple for the past fifty years, though anyone with a knowledge of 20-century history can probably figure out just what world event has shaped Max and Lola’s present and continues to plague their dreams, hers tormented, his offering a kind of “what if” escape.
If you’re anything like this reviewer, you may find yourself alternately wishing Margulies’ elderly marrieds the relief they at long last deserve and wanting to slap some sense into them, all the while understanding why they can leave behind neither past memories nor this “problem child” grown monster adult.
If nothing else, The Model Apartment is a play you’ll be talking and thinking about long after its final fadeout, connecting dots to determine for yourself just what made Debby Debby, who exactly Max’s dream Deborah (Marks again, minus fat suit) might be, wondering whether Lola’s tale of a youthful encounter with a now legendary diarist is improbable fact or self-protective fiction, and trying to understand Neil, the homeless black teen (Giovanni Adams) who has followed Debby south.
Performances on the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater stage could not be more impeccable under Marya Mazor’s pitch-perfect direction.
Mantell and Fox are absolutely convincing, and utterly devastating, as a couple bound not just by love, but by shared horrors, past and present, and though Adams’ part is considerably smaller and almost wordless, he too is heartbreakingly real.
Still, it is the always astonishing Marks whose Debby will have you mesmerized, disturbed, shocked (often into horrified laughter), and shattered, and whose Deborah will haunt you as she does Max.
Composer-sound designer Lindsay Jones underscores Margulies’ words to compelling effect. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s meticulously appointed model apartment could exist nowhere other than The Sunshine State, and Brian Gale’s evocative lighting enhances it every step of the way. Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes are equally impeccable.
Edgar Landa is fight director. Hershl Hartman is Yiddish dialog coach. Amy Levinson is dramaturg. Casting is by Phillis Schuringa, CSA.
Niki Armato is production stage manager.
While hardly a Donald Margulies “crowd-pleaser” in the vein of previous Geffen smashes The Country House, Coney Island Christmas, and Time Stands Still, The Model Apartment makes for a strange but powerful ninety minutes of audience-challenging theater.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
October 26, 2106
Photos: Jeff Lorch