10/15/2013 11:22 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2013

First Nighter: Donald Margulies's Hard-Hitting "Model Apartment" a Model Production

Depending on when you see -- or have seen -- The Model Apartment, you will either think playwright Donald Margulies has shifted gears to or shifted them from his list of strong-minded domestic dramas.
If you saw it in 1995 at its initial Primary Stages outing, when it was well received but had an unsatisfying run, you'll likely conclude that he's eased off from the desolation of the work then to the more resolute concerns intrinsic to, say, his 2000 Pulitzer-Prize-winning Dinner With Friends or the more recent Time Stands Still.

If you've seen those or others before getting to The Model Apartment, now revived by Primary Stages at 59E59, you'll be knocked off balance by the radial switch to such committed hopelessness.

In either case, you'd better make time for it. You'll be mightily impressed -- and if you're like me, you'll also be greatly disturbed. Putting exposure to bad playwriting aside, I don't remember ever feeling so fidgety as a production unfolded. I don't remember having to fight so increasingly against the urge to avert my eyes and clap my hands over my ears.

The nagging urge didn't begin the minute Max (Mark Blum) and Lola (Kathryn Grody) come through the door of the Florida model apartment (Lauren Helpern's perfectly right set) they've temporarily been offered sometimes in the '80s while finishing touches are put on the new home they've bought.

Their situation only darkens mildly as they bicker about the expectations they've had after quitting their life in the North -- for reasons that go unexplained just then. They remain the, well, model of a long-married couple who've gotten on each other's nerves over the years due to various annoying habits but have stuck together.

Things erupt -- and do they! -- when daughter Debbie (Diane Davis) is suddenly there, having trailed her parents whom she knows are where they are because they've chosen to abandon her. Why they have done so is instantly obvious. The obese, obstreperous, abusive, logorrheic Diane is the sort of young woman whom any caring parent would be tempted to consider casting off after years of unsuccessful tending.

The manner in which Margulies presents Debbie initially makes her seem an unfortunate bad seed, especially when the newly acquired boyfriend Neil (Hubert Point-du Jour) about whom she taunts her father also turns up and proves to be a barely literate, possibly autistic boy inclined to do damage to the model apartment.

Examining the effect a daughter like Debbie has on relatively stable elders isn't at all what Margulies has in mind, however. He's tracking the ins and outs of a much more complex issue. Explicating as much requires including potential plot and character spoilers -- leading me to suggest that anyone not wanting more details about what makes The Model Apartment an absolute must-see might want to stop reading now and simply follow my run-don't-walk advice.

If you're still reading, then know that at one point, Neil -- having extending his forearm to reveal a tattoo -- says to Lola, "You have one, too." She says nothing. She doesn't have to. That's when what patrons have begun to suspect is confirmed: She's a survivor of the camps. It's the Holocaust and its continuing aftermath that's Margulies's real subject.

For his part, Max was not interned, having spent the war years hiding in the forest. His first wife and daughter, also named Deborah, weren't so lucky. They perished, though Deborah, played by Davis out of her fat suit, occasionally appears to her inconsolable dad in dreams and daydreams.

So, yes, if you've surmised Margulies is talking unflinching talk about survival guilt, you're right. He's looking hard at the ways in which survivors haven't fully survived--and very possibly can never fully survive. He's looking at the form severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder can take not only on those with first-hand experience of the Holocaust but also the form of retribution it can take on succeeding generations -- the unflaggingly acting-out Debbie the prime example on hand.

Margulies's implied conclusions are difficult to take on, which surely explains the disorientation I felt at the 90-minute intermissionless onslaught on whatever existed of my complaisance. Margulies's refusal to retreat from the disturbing circumstances he's set in motion is the main reason for seeing the play and then having to reckon with it. It's so compelling that I suspect whenever his plays are ranked -- if they ever need to be -- this one will be at the top or very near.

The Model Apartment isn't, it should be plain by now, the sort of piece that can off-handedly be pulled together. Director Evan Cabnet took pains to guarantee that the play's pains achieve their unrelenting effect. The cast members he found are crucial, of course -- and not one of them has an easy go of it.

Mark Blum -- not long ago in Richard Goldberg's The Assembled Parties about Jews in different difficult straits -- is always tops, but this may be his finest showing. This Max, who speaks with vestiges of a middle European accent, is tormented by the past and its unfortunate presence in the present, and Blum misses none of the nuances.

Grody's Lola has spent decades managing Max and now is forced to confront her greatest challenge -- deciding where her wife-mother loyalties lie. Grody gets it all in. Point-du Jour plays Neil's deficiencies extremely well. Perhaps Davis has the most demands. Immediately off-putting, Debbie, it turns out, has valid psychological causes for behaving as she does, and Davis makes it all understandable. Moreover, as the dream Deborah she's lovely.

Margulies falters only infrequently as he blueprints The Model Apartment. The most pressing question anyone might put to him has to do with Max and Lola and their attitude towards their dreadful earlier lives. The more common observation about Holocaust survivors is that they've been compulsively reticent about their horrifying treatment -- they don't want to burden themselves with the memories or burden those around them. Max and Lola have apparently talked incessantly about what they've endured. But okay, some survivors may have and some may still do. Those are the ones on whom Margulies has focused.

Another somewhat puzzling sequence has Lola, hoping to engage Neil, telling the story of her friendship in Bergen-Belsen with Anne Frank. It's unclear whether she's lived the event or whether she's imagined it to assuage unresolved inner conflict. The stronger indication is that what she claims happened never did, but the mystery lingers and is a kind of unnecessary ambiguity.

Nevertheless, these are flaws in a hard-to-take but impossible-to-deny work of regenerate art.

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