The word trauma originally referred to a physical wound or defeat. Later usage, influenced by Freud, stressed an injury of the mind — invisible but no less real for being unseen.
Unseen but not undetectable. In Donald Margulies’ “The Model Apartment,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, the psychological scars of an older couple are apparent before a word about their horrific past has even been spoken.
The play, which first was produced at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988 and won an Obie for its 1995 off-Broadway premiere, is a study in the way trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Small scale yet nonetheless expansive, the drama, set in the late 1980s, retains its power even if this revival doesn’t venture all that far below the surface.
Brooklynites by way of Eastern Europe, Lola (Marilyn Fox) and Max (Michael Mantell) have just retired to Florida. While waiting for their condo to be finished, they’ve been offered the housing development’s model apartment for a few nights.
Margulies, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Dinner With Friends,” allows us to observe the way Lola and Max deal with the inconveniences of their move before revealing that they are Holocaust survivors who have suffered unspeakable losses.
“You put every cent you got into a condo, and they treat you like animals,” Lola complains to her husband. When it’s discovered that many of the objects in the apartment are glued down to prevent theft and not even the refrigerator works, Lola becomes inconsolable: “Perishables. Everything’s wasted.”
If Lola’s lamentations seem disproportionate, Max’s blasé shrugs are equally suspect. Displaced grief and numbed affect are flip sides of the same traumatic coin.
Marya Mazor’s production is strongest in these opening moments when Lola and Max are navigating their way through this strange new environment, which has been rendered in all its generic splendor by ace scenic designer Tom Buderwitz.
Fox and Mantell bring an unforced realism to their opening scenes. Their performances blend musically, discovering the rhythm of their long-married characters who don’t need to say much to each other to make themselves understood.
This acting harmony is lost, however, when the play shifts gears after Max and Lola’s mentally ill daughter turns up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. A grossly overweight, nonstop chattering intrusion, Debby (Annika Marks) feels betrayed that her parents left Brooklyn a week earlier than expected. She senses, rightfully, that they weren’t leaving Brooklyn so much as running away from her.
The script calls for the character to be played in a “realistic ‘fat suit,’ ” which is a trickier wardrobe feat to pull off than it might seem. (This is necessary because the actress who plays Debby also plays Deborah, Max’s dead daughter, who returns to him in his dreams in scenes that seem extraneous here.) The outfit that costume designer Sara Ryung Clement devises — ’80s-style stretch pants that accentuate how bottom-heavy Debby is — is a tad too theatrical.
Marks’ portrayal is similarly stagey. The character’s behavior is meant to be inappropriately disruptive. Debby eats with food spilling out of her mouth, talks incessantly about the Nazis and her mother’s concentration camp experience and careens around the studio apartment with the clumsy maneuvering of a golf cart. But Marks’ performance never lets you forget that it’s a performance.
Compounding the inauthenticity, Fox’s Lola and Mantell’s Max respond to their daughter as though she were a character in a play that was still in rehearsals. When Neil (Giovanni Adams), Debby’s teenage African American homeless boyfriend, who appears to be mentally slow, crashes the party, the production becomes even less credible.
The problem isn’t Adams’ portrayal — the sex scene between Debby and Neil that takes place in front of her parents is embarrassingly believable. But the realism of this spiraling situation is quickly lost.
Lola winds up telling Neil concentration camp stories about her relationship with Anne Frank — tales that Debby knows are being fictionalized. Fox’s handling of this scene doesn’t elucidate the need of a Holocaust survivor to rewrite her story. Nor does it help us, more basically, understand Lola’s movement from being horrified by this young man to suddenly feeling maternal toward him.
Meanwhile, Mantell grows only more detached as Max. Rather than calling attention to the roots of the character’s pattern of deflection, the performance seems increasingly superficial.
Susan Sontag cautioned us against turning illness into metaphor, arguing that disease is challenging enough without the symbolic cargo branding the stricken as “other” instead of merely human. Psychological trauma, however, is inherently metaphoric in the sense that the injured mind has no choice but to translate overwhelming experience into forms that can be tolerated and safely shared.
Mental illness is an effective catalyst for Margulies’ drama. Not only does Debby’s crazy babbling about Hitler and the death camps voice the repressed yet ever-present history of her family, but the way Lola and Max deal with their daughter’s poorly controlled psychiatric condition mirrors the way they deal with the aftermath of the Holocaust in their lives.
But the play, with its cramped single set and its tightly focused plot, requires more subtle engagement. Marks rises to the occasion in her climactic scene as Debby, but the production skirts the subterranean depths. The drama’s basic floor plan is solidly rendered, but the figures in this revival of “The Model Apartment’ remain hazy to the end.
‘The Model Apartment’
Where: Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Nov. 20
Ticket: $60 to $82 (subject to change)
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
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