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The Model Apartment

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody.
Photo by James Leynse.
How annoyed are you willing to make yourself if you're guaranteed a spectacular payoff? Of the numerous questions raised by Donald Margulies's 1995 play The Model Apartment and the new Primary Stages revival of it, this one is perhaps the most pressing. Throughout the first 70 minutes of the 80-minute running time, you're acutely aware that things are not as they should be, though only after it's all over are you sufficiently equipped to decide whether your sacrifice was worth it.

It's worth noting that the state of this mounting, which has been directed by Evan Cabnet, closely mirrors the content of the play itself. Focusing on three members of a family who are united more by a skeleton in their communal closet than by their blood, The Model Apartment is about choices and the repercussions we can't predict, or even conceive of, decades out. So when the resolution finally comes it's as cathartic for them as for us, and the synergy between the stage and the audience is indeed palpable.

If this isn't necessarily how the play is supposed to function, it nonetheless succeeds on those terms, and as a piece of writing in its own right. A surprising and intricately emotional look at how the family copes (or, rather, fails to cope) in the early 80s with the world-shattering events they survived some 40 years prior, it's hardly without mind and meat. And Margulies's abilities to build suspense from nothing and turn the innocuous into the shattering within just two or three lines of dialogue—and how to shift you're sympathies once you're positive they're fixed in place—are in full force.

But neither Cabnet nor his cast has yet discovered how to bring forth any of these qualities. From the first moments we meet Max (Mark Blum) and Lola (Kathryn Grody), they're so completely at odds with the world around them that you cannot accept their universe as a real one. True, you start off thinking that it's merely their location—the title structure (designed with cookie-cutter-condo precision by Lauren Helpern) in Florida, where they're staying while they wait for their new apartment to be finished— you soon realize the troubles run much deeper.

You learn before long that the older couple, who their voices tell us hail from Europe, is on the run from at least two things: their past and their daughter, Debby. Yet neither Blum nor Grody evinces a hint of being haunted. These are well-with-it, almost sophisticated people who may be out of their element (Max and Lola just came from Brooklyn), but haven't left the planet. When they speak of the dark choices they've made, how they've been on the run for years, and how they apparently abandoned Debby back in New York, it's tough to believe they came from anywhere but the dining room after wolfing down the Early Bird Special.

Diane Davis
Photo by James Leynse.
Lola is more out of it, more dazed, than Max, but Grody doesn't resolve that into a character beyond the standard-issue supplicant matriarch who rattles off questionable stories from memory but has no inner life of her own. Blum displays in isolated flashes a flicker of secrecy, as though there's something he wants to give voice to—for Lola, for us—but can't, and that keeps us involved throughout the long stretches when actor and character alike threaten to fade into the wallpaper.

As both performers mumble most of their lines, however, and let their accents mask, rather than bring out, the pasts about which we're supposed to be so curious, the story's core begins going soft immediately. If Max and Lola aren't compelling enough to make us want to pry deeper, the hour or so that follows becomes only a tedious game of waiting until the pieces lumber jerkily into place.

The most appalling of these pieces is Debby herself, who as rendered by a terrifyingly broad Diane Davis is a gorgon reimagined by Looney Tunes. Screeching, barreling about the room, and making herself as oppressive as possible using her drain-cleaner personality and grotesque physical girth, Debby doesn't just convince us that she's out of sorts, but also that she's out of control—a sparking, smoking automaton struggling to break free of its programming. Forget that Davis does nothing to ground Debby, Davis does nothing to suggest that she is, or could be, a person for whom we should feel... something.

Alas, that's crucial. Although the nature of Debby's identity and the reason for her bizarre behavior is a central point of the plot (and thus won't be revealed here), the ending demands that her condition register as a loss: for us, for her, for her parents, and perhaps even for the world. But Davis's Debby is so monstrous, so soulless, so thoroughly fake that you want to sedate her rather than discover her truths.

That stops even the resolution from attaining its full impact, something that Cabnet's sputtering, sluggish staging is unable to correct. It remains stunning in word and substance, but its impact is that of a resolution with no setup, a twist of air and never as real as it wants you to think. In that way, this take on The Model Apartment lives up to its namesake. I, for one, would prefer it instead lived up to its script.

The Model Apartment
Through November 1
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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