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By Carolyn Hayes
Playwright Donald Margulies may have written The Model Apartment as a dark comedy, but for the most part, director Lavinia Moyer Hart stops at "dark." Although the production at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre is twisted into absurdity, and objectively funny moments come and go, Hart doesn't play the scene for laughs, instead diving headlong into the characters and relationships of one nuclear family freshly and repeatedly ravaged by its history. Given a plot so intense it practically gasps for levity, the choice is indeed risky; it's also more than justified in this incendiary production, cemented by a must-see lead performance.
Max (Tom Mahard) and Lola (Trudy Mason) have sped from New York to Florida, eager to begin their retirement. However, their arrival is so early, they're waylaid in the model unit of the complex until their new-construction residence is completed. The production team has fun with the latest in 1988 retirement living: Beyond the busy tropical patterns, pastel-speckled flooring and bamboo blinds of the studio apartment, set designer Sarah Tanner's distinctly Floridian room even has a Florida room. Bland model-home accoutrements and ocean-inspired kitsch (properties by Diane Ulseth) are bonded to the furniture, enhancing the off-putting feel of a living space void of working appliances or any sign of life. Jon Weaver's sound design anticipates the trouble-free good life with placidly warm Nat King Cole tunes and uses ambient noises to expand on what's visible. Designer Donald Fox toys with automated lighting and lends both visibility and tone to the several lights-off scenes of Max and Lola's long night.
And the night is indeed long, for beyond the discomforts and inconveniences of this borrowed home, the couple discovers they have more baggage than just their overnight cases. At an inopportune moment, in bursts Debby (Laurel Hufano), the adult daughter they left behind in New York, sparking with agitation and ready to move in with Mommy and Daddy. Debby's mental illness is immediately apparent, as is Max's impatience with his child and Lola's warring allegiances to both of them.
Designer Christa Koerner's rich costume work amusingly tackles both Debby's off-her-meds look and her parents' screaming '80s vacation wear, but the choices first and foremost feel genuine to the characters. With the family reunited, Debby wastes little time invoking the Holocaust, of which both Max and Lola are survivors, and which Debby constantly experiences, a frantic survivor by proxy. The blatant summons of the family history begins to uncover less obvious (yet no less devastating) ways in which its members cannot shake the experience. Margulies uses supporting characters as foils: The impishly simple Neil (Chris Jakob) is a fresh audience for Lola's gentle but powerful bedtime story, whereas Max's past involving Deborah (an untouchably angelic Christina Flynn) is a secret he fairly hoards.
As the play powers through its 80-minute single act, the family's tactics and reactions give rise to serious questions about the imperative yet debilitating legacy of Holocaust survivors, the responsibility of embodying incomprehensible hardship coupled with the perpetual elusiveness of a normal life. Here, Hart and company are commended for keeping Max and Lola dynamic and interesting in the vicinity of Debby, who effortlessly swipes focus and warps a play about other people into one about her. Even so, the production makes ample room for Hufano to shine, which the actor validates with unquestionably stupendous work. She leaps to the challenge of inhabiting this damaged and brutal character, disappearing into an impulsive, pitiful, and terrifying individual, yet demonstrating uncanny control as a performer and scene partner. Her character arc is desperately sad and inevitable, examining the roots of her mental illness as well as Max and Lola's inability to contend with it, or with her.
In all, this Model Apartment establishes a world in which a fresh start is impossible and incongruous perspectives prove as fixed as memory. In practice, Margulies' text establishes a premise on the brink of self-destruction, and Hart's gamble of weighing honesty over comedy pulls the viewer well within the blast radius. The end result is an unrelenting plunge into a conversation more crassly upsetting than much of the JET's fare, but the richness of the material and Hufano's astonishing work ensure that leaving the theater wide-eyed and shaken can be as much a reward as a consequence.
SHOW DETAILS: The Jewish Ensemble Theatre's The Model Apartment continues at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through June 5. Tickets: $32-$41. For information: 248-788-2900 or www.jettheatre.org.
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