October 26, 2013

"Bad Jews" and "The Model Apartment" Revisit the Still Harrowing Legacy of the Holocaust

“Never forget” was the rallying cry adopted by those who survived the Holocaust. But that generation is dying out and feelings about what it means to be a Jew, particularly what it means to be an American Jew, have evolved over the last seven decades. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. is now 71 percent and two-thirds of the Jews in this country are raising their children with only passing regard for Jewish traditions.

So it’s been fascinating to see the recent productions of two plays—Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews and Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment—that deal in very different ways with that old identity question and its corollary of how young Jews should deal with the legacy of the horrors committed 70 years ago and the memories of those who lived through them.
I didn’t see Bad Jews when it played at the Roundabout Underground last year but Harmon’s dark comedy and its lead performance by Tracee Chimo drew such raves that I was delighted to get the chance to see its return engagement, which has been extended through Dec. 29 at the Roundabout’s larger Laura Pels Theatre.
And all the fuss proves to have been deserving. The play centers around three young Jews—two brothers and their female cousin—who are forced to share a small studio apartment when their families gather to mourn the death of the cousin’s adored grandfather, a survivor of the death camps who immigrated to America where he enjoyed a long and full life.  
The emblem of his survival and success is a small gold medallion in the shape of the Hebrew letters for the word life. It is the only keepsake from his childhood that the grandfather managed to hold onto and he so valued it that he later used the medallion instead of an engagement ring when he proposed to his wife.
Two of the grandchildren are desperate to inherit it. Daphna, a Vassar senior who has become zealously Orthodox after a trip to Israel, believes she should get it because she is the one most devoted to their Jewish heritage. Her secular cousin Liam sees the ornament as a symbol of familial love and wants to give it to his own intended, a blonde shiksa named Melody.  
Chimo throws vanity aside and plays Daphna as an almost insufferable whirlwind of anger, condescension and resentment towards her more affluent cousins. Both she and the lines that Harmon has concocted for her are screamingly funny. 

Michael Zegen is almost as deliciously vicious as Daphna’s secular rival for the heirloom.  And Molly Ranson is equally winning as the tougher-than-she-looks gentile girlfriend.

But under Daniel Aukin’s astute direction, the cartoonish humor of the first half of the play eventually gives ground to Harmon’s more serious meditation on how to carry on a troubled legacy (click here to read an interview with the playwright). When the quiet cousin Jonah, played with deceptive understatement by Philip Ettinger, finally reveals how far he will go it moved me to tears. 
The burdens of the past are on even more intense display in The Model Apartment, which also features Jewish family members trapped in a small studio apartment with a difficult young woman. 
In this case, the relatives are Lola and Max, Holocaust survivors who have now reached retirement age. The difficult woman is their thirtysomething daughter Debby, who is obese, literally bearing the weight of her mother and father’s tragic past, and so mentally disturbed that her overwhelmed parents have fled from Brooklyn to a retirement community in Florida.

The condo they bought sight unseen isn’t ready for their premature arrival and so the couple has been put up in the development’s titular model apartment. But before they’ve even had a chance to settle in, Debby shows up, bringing with her the years of heartache that Max and Lola have been so desperate to get away from.

Margulies, whose works include Sight Unseen, Time Stands Still and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner With Friends (which the Roundabout is reviving early next year) wrote The Model Apartment in the 1980s when the children of Holocaust survivors were beginning to tell their own stories, most notably in Helen Epstein’s classic book, "Children of the Holocaust."  

But it took Margulies nearly a decade to get The Model Apartment produced and even then the show ran for just 21 performances after it played at Primary Stages in 1995 (click here to read about the history of the play). So it should be gratifying for Margulies to get the almost pitch perfect production that director Evan Cabnet has put together, even if it's only scheduled to run until Nov. 1.
Unlike Margulies' other, more naturalistic, plays, The Model Apartment ventures into the surreal as the mania Debby exhibits during her visit pushes Max and Lola into their own unwanted reveries about the past, from the glory of a possible relationship with Anne Frank to the agony of abandoning a family in order to survive. 
Mark Blum and Kathryn Grody are marvelous as Max and Lola, who make separate but equally uneasy peace with Debby and the past that helped to create her. And Diane Davis is impressively courageous in her performance as the woman-child, irreparably damaged by a past that isn’t even her own (click here to read an interview with the actress).
The result is a powerful evening of theater so raw and unrelentingly honest that at some moments, I pushed back into my chair in an unconscious attempt to get away from the pain emanating from the stage and at others, I leaned forward, grateful for the chance to give witness.

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