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Holocaust-ed: How the Defining Event of American Jewish Identity Plays Off-Broadway

Two fine one-act plays, ‘Bad Jews’ and ‘The Model Apartment,’ tackle the Shoah with unflinching dark humor

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Kathryn Grody and Mark Blum in the Primary Stages production of The Model Apartment (James Leynse)
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Elie Wiesel, who more than any other living writer built his international reputation on bearing witness to the Holocaust, complained back in 1989 about a recurring nightmare. “I wake up shivering,” he told me, “thinking that when we die, no one will be able to persuade people that the Holocaust occurred.”

He needn’t have worried. Twenty-five years later, Holocaust commemorations—museums, discussion groups, archives, documentaries, statues and works of art—have become, according to a recently released study by the Pew Research Center, the bedrock of modern American Jewish life, the glue that holds the community together. According to the scholar James Young, there are now more than 100 Holocaust museums, educational institutions, and “tolerance” centers throughout the country—many more than in any other nation, including Israel, to which many of the survivors fled. As a fundamental touchstone of American Jewish identity, the Holocaust has also become, for better or worse, grist for the theater. Two one-act, 90-minute, off-Broadway plays currently tackle the Holocaust’s impact on successive Jewish generations with unflinching, disquieting dark humor, with pathos and originality.

The less successful of the two fine works is The Model Apartment, partly because of its age. Written by Donald Margulies in the 1980s, the play opened in Los Angeles in 1988 and hadn’t been staged in New York in 18 years. A dramatic departure from the playwright’s better-known works—Dinner With Friends and Time Stands StillModel Apartment is a surreal drama about an elderly couple who retire to Florida from Brooklyn. But they cannot leave behind them memories of their trauma, or the living specter of their aggressive, demented daughter.

Lola (Kathryn Grody) and husband Max (Mark Blum) have just moved to Miami, but they have been in full flight for years. Both are desperate to escape not only New York’s icy winters and memories of the Holocaust that they both survived, but the increasingly insupportable burden of caring for Debby, their obscenely obese, mentally deranged daughter. Now in her 20s, Debby (an exuberant Diane Davis) is a constant reminder that there can be no safe harbor. She dominates the physical stage and emotional space of the play as she terrorizes her parents. Debby, of course, is their creation, the embodiment of her parents’ Holocaust-driven fears, the repository of their guilt, of those terrible camp stories she’s heard ad nauseum. Like their tormented memories, Debby will not let go. She blames her parents for her own insanity and her grotesque physique, playing adeptly on her parents’ survivor’s guilt.

Debby’s obesity, her grossness, foul language, sexual aggression, and celebrity fantasies are supposed to be a pathetic plea for help, a response to her all-consuming loneliness, but it doesn’t make surviving her tantrums any easier for her parents, and at moments, for the audience. As she bounds, elephant-like, across the stage—a female Michelin man—the energetic, heavily padded Ms. Davis reminds Lola and Max that escape is futile. The “model” studio apartment by the sea in which the three of them are forced to co-exist for the night enhances their claustrophobia. They are constrained to spend the night there because the condo Max and Lola bought long-distance is not ready. But the model apartment is not what it seems to be. “The fridge is a fake,” Max complains. Candlesticks and even ashtrays are glued down to prevent their removal.

Max escapes only in sleep, which Lola complains he does all too well. “Where, where do you go? What goes on in there? You got some chippie in there with you, Max?” Lola asks her sleeping husband, who is hardly the wandering type. “Sleep is your mistress. With her you can be safe. She’ll tell you all the time how big and strong you are. I don’t tell you, right? No, she tells you. With her, you can talk. With me … no talk.”

Neil, Debby’s black, homeless boyfriend (Hubert Point-du-Jour), has never heard of the Holocaust. He has followed Debby to Florida just as she has pursued her parents. His cluelessness about Debby’s life and her parents’ past separates him from the three of them far more than race or poverty.

Max, Lola, and Debby are each haunted by the Holocaust in different ways. Max is guilty about having survived by hiding in the forest while his wife and infant daughter—now transformed in sleep to a soulful, beautiful young Deborah (also played by an unpadded Ms. Davis)—perished in a camp. The perfect daughter he lost appears to him now only in his dreams, which presumably explains his love affair with sleep. Lola, who survived Bergen Belsen, cannot sleep at all. Her recurring nightmare is the guilt she feels about not having looked back as her mother was taken away, presumably to a gas chamber. “I didn’t look,” she says. “She called me, her voice was torn up from screaming, but I walked, I kept on walking. I didn’t look back. Like my own mother was a stranger. I didn’t look. … I didn’t look .”

Lola’s most self-redeeming memory is a fantasy. She was in Bergen with “Anna,” yes, “little Anna Frank of Amsterdam,” who secretly kept a second diary at the camp, at Lola’s urging. Had the diary survived, the whole world would have known about Lola, Anne Frank’s muse, her heroine, just as they now know about Anne Frank. Lola would no longer have been an anonymous survivor among the 6 million. Her loss, her suffering, Little Anna’s death from typhus in her arms would not have been pointless. “She wrote about me!” Lola says. “I could’ve given people hope. But my story, Lola’s story, told by Anne Frank, went up in flames with her at Belsen. The Belsen diary. The other diary. The diary nobody knows about.”

Debby repeats the story verbatim, echoing, and sometimes finishing her mother’s sentences. She has heard this tale and others like it a thousand times before. Because of such stories, Debby, too, has memories of an event she never experienced. Twisted renditions of them have consumed her; she has internalized and populated them with Hollywood celebrities who are also being chased by Nazis. “They’re all inside me,” Debby wails. “All of them. Anne Frank. The 6 million. … When my stomach talks, it’s them talking.”

***

Margulies’ play must have been far more powerful when it was first staged and such themes as survivor guilt were less of a cliché. But despite terrific performances by the cast, a near-perfect set and costumes—kudos to Lauren Helpern and Jenny Mannis—and Keith Parham’s lighting, the work feels forced for 21st-century Americans, steeped in the culture of Holocaust centers and Spielberg’s Hollywood. Not so Bad Jews, a ferocious work first performed at the Roundabout Theater in New York last year about three young Jewish cousins who meet after the death of their grandfather, Poppy. Written by Josh Harmon, the script so takes for granted the Holocaust’s dominance in modern Jewish life that Liam (Michael Zegen) can insult Daphna, his obnoxious first cousin (Tracee Chimo) by accusing her of trying to guilt-trip him into giving her what she wants. “Don’t Holocaust me!” Liam chides Daphna as the two of them fight over who will be get to keep their grandfather’s chai necklace, the sole possession either of them desires. The proverbial elephant-in-the play—the Holocaust that beloved Poppy survived—is so omnipresent that using it as fodder in an argument is regarded by all three cousins as uncouth.

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Holocaust-ed: How the Defining Event of American Jewish Identity Plays Off-Broadway

Two fine one-act plays, ‘Bad Jews’ and ‘The Model Apartment,’ tackle the Shoah with unflinching dark humor