As the controversy over the commercial use or misuse of Anne Frank’s diary and life story continues, along comes this revival of Donald Margulies’ early play “The Model Apartment,” in which a character named Lola claims to have been Anne Frank’s best friend in Bergen-Belsen. First produced at the Los Angeles Theater Center in 1988, the play was not seen in New York until 1995, and then only briefly.
Part absurdist, part black comedy (at the performance seen the audience took every opportunity to laugh, even when it probably shouldn’t have), “The Model Apartment” is made up of a series of short scenes. At least in this production, there is absolutely no cumulative impact. The action stops and starts spasmodically, with long, empty pauses suggesting nothing more than actors standing around waiting to be told what to do next.
Elizabeth Franz, a lovely actress, has the clear potential to give the production its most telling performance, and her Mittel European Jewish accent and cadences are spot-on (some dialogue is in Yiddish, some in German). But even she is stymied by Margulies’ work and Doug Hughes’ aimless staging.
The play is set in 1985 in the model apartment of its title, a depressingly bland interior-designer’s idea of a condominium — all too brilliantly dreamed up by designer Neil Patel — in which neither the refrigerator nor the TV works and removable bits and pieces are glued down. The bickering Lola (Franz) and her husband, Max (George Coe), have come down to Florida from New York City upon his retirement. They are in the model apartment for “a night or two” because their condo isn’t yet ready.
They are making love when their manic, schizoid slob of a daughter Debby (Roberta Wallach), a grossly obese nightmare they believe they have left behind, bursts in on them, followed some time later by the “mildly retarded” young black man (Corey Parker Robinson) Debby has picked up off the New York streets as her lover.
As Debby chatters on crazily, with references to Bess Myerson as Eva Braun and so forth, it becomes evident that she is the repository for the concentration camp stories her mother has told, endlessly, all her life. Lola is deeply ashamed of having refused to acknowledge her mother as she was being led off to her death at the hands of the Nazis.
Meanwhile, Max is being visited by the ghost of a beautiful young woman, Deborah (also played by Wallach) who, apparently, died in a concentration camp. At one point Debby screams out something to the effect that she’s the way she is because she was named after Deborah — but just who Deborah was isn’t made entirely clear.
As written by Margulies and directed by Hughes, the role of Debby is virtually unplayable, and Wallach, in desperation, resorts to flailing. Coe as Max clearly tries his best but to little avail. Robinson is OK in his comparatively pointless role.
“The Model Apartment” attempts to depict a family poisoned beyond redemption by the Holocaust. But the Holocaust is too big a subject, about which so much of greater consequence has been written, for it to be addressed by such a small, limping play.