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'The Model Apartment': Donald Margulies 1988 play about family trauma is still relevant

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Donald Margulies isn’t the son of Holocaust survivors but a childhood friend is. And they were the inspiration for his play, “The Model Apartment.”

As a playwright, screenwriter and professor of theater studies at Yale, Margulies has had a prolific career. One of his earliest plays, “The Model Apartment,” premiered in 1988 in Los Angeles and is now returning to town.

Set in the 80s, the story focuses on two elderly Holocaust survivors, Max and Lola. They’ve hit retirement, and are looking to spend their golden years in Florida. But life in the Sunshine State turns dark very quickly, as the couple’s mentally ill daughter tracks them down and arrives at their retirement community without an invitation.  

“The Model Apartment,” which is currently playing at the Geffen Theaterin Westwood, examines not only the trauma of surviving an event as horrific as the Holocaust, but also how children of survivors can be profoundly shaped by their parents’ experiences. And that’s as relevant today — with genocide and civil wars around the globe — as it was when Margulies wrote his play several decades ago.

When I spoke with Margulies, he reflected on watching the "The Model Apartment" now with many more years of experience.

Interview Highlights:

On watching his own play almost thirty years later:



I view a play such as this — one that I wrote many years ago — as the work of a younger artist. And that the statement that I made at that particular time was what my intention was. I resist the temptation to revisit it in any way and just experience it as if I'm an audience member who is seeing it for the first time. There is a certain kind of pleasure in that because when I wrote it, I had limited success. I didn't have much of an audience. And there's a kind of lack of self consciousness that I think an artist sees in his/her work that was done before recognition struck. I think from that point forward, self consciousness begins to seep in an begins to cast a shadow over a kind of spontaneity that I think can never really be reclaimed. 

(L-R) Annika Marks, Marilyn Fox and Michael Mantell in Donald Margulies' "The Model Apartment."
Jeff Lorch Photography
(L-R) Annika Marks, Marilyn Fox and Michael Mantell in Donald Margulies' "The Model Apartment."

On the inspiration for the characters in "The Model Apartment":



I am not a child of survivors but my oldest friend is. His parents were both survivors. I would spend Rosh Hashanah with them and Passover with them so I was very much immersed in the assimilated Holocaust survivor in America experience vicariously through my friend and his family. I think that the catalyst for "The Model Apartment" really came out of a conversation that I had with my old friend at a time in our lives when his parents were beginning to contemplate retirement. I remember being struck by the juxtaposition of imagining his parents as enduring persecution in Eastern Europe and here within the same lifetime now looking at condominium developments to acquire in Florida. And I just thought there was something kind of fabulous in that.

Annika Marks and Michael Mantell in Donald Margulies' "The Model Apartment."
Jeff Lorch Photography
Annika Marks and Michael Mantell in Donald Margulies' "The Model Apartment."

How his background in visual arts impacts his writing:



Very often a scene will come to me in terms of location or even the configuration of where the characters are standing and in what way they're standing. So I very often will have a visual reference to share with a director and his/her designers. In the case of "The Model Apartment," one of the inspirations for me was a photograph by Diane Arbus. One of the titles that it's known under is "A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx." It's this extraordinary photograph of this seven and a half foot tall — or maybe even more than that — nearly stooped with arthritis young man, leaning on a cane, towering over these little Jewish parents of his. I saw that photograph at the time that I was conceiving of "The Model Apartment" and that for me became the visualization of the metaphor of the play: of these two little people in the scheme of things confronted by this monstrous child of their own creation and trying to deal with the humanity of it — trying to deal with the enormity of it. So Diane Arbus became a great marker for the conception of the play.

(L-R) Giovanni Adams, Marilyn Fox, Annika Marks and Michael Mantell in Donald Margulies' "The Model Apartment."
Jeff Lorch Photography
(L-R) Giovanni Adams, Marilyn Fox, Annika Marks and Michael Mantell in Donald Margulies' "The Model Apartment."

On what he finds to be the most rewarding kind of audience response:



Sometimes people will recognize me as the pacing playwright in the lobby. But somebody will come up to me and say, are you the playwright? And I'll say, I am. And they say, I'm not Jewish. I have no relationship to the Holocaust, but I'm Syrian and this play resonated for me so extraordinarily given today's international migrant catastrophe. And I just think, that's the sort of experience I would hope the theater elicits generally, but certainly specifically for this play, that people put it in the context of what they're living now and not just simply viewing something that is depicting a time that is far away and removed from today's experience. I think there are still resonances within the very specific world of Holocaust survivors and their children.

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