The Model Apartment: A Great Play Rediscovered

Donald Margulies’ early work, long unseen, may be the most brutal family play ever written

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James Leynse / Primary Stages

Kathryn Grody and Mark Blum in the Primary Stages production of 'The Model Apartment'

We’re in the model apartment of a condominium complex in Florida. An elderly Jewish couple have just arrived from New York, at night, only to find that their new condo is still a couple of days away from being finished, and this is where they must stay temporarily. They coo happily, after the long drive, over the sterile, utterly generic furnishings of their new home: dishwasher, television set, convertible couch. “The man said luxury,” the husband notes approvingly.

What begins with a note of light satire, at a couple’s downsized dreams, gets progressively more disturbing. The “model” apartment, it turns out, is mostly fake. An ashtray sitting atop the kitchen table is glued on. The television set has no picture tube. The refrigerator doesn’t work.  Grim foreshadowing of the nightmarish evening ahead.

Playwright Donald Margulies wrote The Model Apartment back in the 1980s, before turning out the string of successful plays for which he is best known— mostly slick, crowd-pleasing comedy-dramas like Dinner With Friends, Collected Stories and the recent Time Stands Still. The play has languished largely unnoticed ever since (its New York premiere, in 1995, had to be cut short after the lead actor quit), and Margulies has called it my problem child.” Now, with a stunning new off-Broadway production from Primary Stages, theatergoers can see just what he’s been nurturing all these years: a neglected American masterpiece.

The couple soon have an unexpected visitor: their grossly obese, mentally disturbed daughter, who has apparently fled the institution where’s she’s living, stopped her meds and followed her parents to Florida. We quickly realize that she is the reason they have left New York. Her nonstop, stream-of-consciousness ranting — manic, abusive, foul-mouthed, uncontrollable —simply can’t be shushed. Not even when she ventures, as she does with shocking casualness, into her parents sacrosanct memories of surviving the Holocaust.

In most Holocaust dramas, the Nazi atrocities are the be-all and end-all of human tragedy. Here they’re just the start. The daughter’s heartless taunting of her parents is only half the shock; the other half is their weary, resigned non-reaction to it, bespeaking a lifetime of enduring this torment.  From Eugene O’Neill to Tracy Letts, American drama has put plenty of heartless, dysfunctional families on display, but this may be the most brutal family play ever written.

Just one act and 80 minutes in length, the play unfolds in a dozen or so short scenes. Part of its unsettling quality is that, after each blackout, we expect (hope) to find ourselves hustled forward to morning — only to discover that just a few minutes has passed. This horrific night won’t end. Another character shows up — the daughter’s boyfriend, a homeless youth she has befriended. More fragments of the couple’s experiences are revealed, including a long, mysterious monologue about Anne Frank. Yet there’s no melodrama, sentimentality or special pleading. And seemingly no way out of the impossible situation.

The play raises big questions about the generational fallout of the Holocaust, and tough ones about the specific family drama we’re witnessing: Do the parents bear any responsibility for the train wreck of a daughter who is now torturing them? When does psychotic raving become truthtelling? Most of all, it portrays what is really the worst tragedy any Holocaust survivor can face: that their experiences, after a lifetime of reliving and retelling, could ultimately lose all meaning.

Director Evan Cabnet’s production is impeccable: the apartment, with occasional passing headlights from cars on the freeway nearby, has the unnerving hyper-normality of Stephen King channeled by Stanley Kubrick. Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody couldn’t be better as the couple: familiar types, but touching individuals. Yet the play wouldn’t have the impact it does without Diane Davis, as the daughter, who gives as vivid and harrowing a portrayal of mental illness as any I’ve seen onstage. She’s a merciless monster in pink sweatpants (the actress wears padding): scary, relentless, mesmerizing — like this remarkable play.