Playwright Donald Margulies rejoiced when Traveling Jewish Theatre decided stage his Holocaust-themed play “The Model Apartment.” But that doesn’t mean he added his two cents as the San Francisco theater company planned its production.
Margulies describes himself as one of those playwrights “who actually closes the book” after he types the words “End of Play.” Once published, he says, “I pretty much leave it alone.”
Still, the Pulitzer Prize–winner cares deeply how theaters approach his work. In the case of “The Model Apart-ment,” he has even fonder feelings.
“It’s one of my favorites,” he says from his home in New Haven, Conn., “mainly because it’s one of the least produced.”
“The Model Apartment,” directed by Amy Glazer, is playing through April 5 at Traveling Jewish Theatre in San Francisco.
If that sounds like a lost segment from “The Jerry Springer Show,” forget it. The play weaves verisimilitude with fantasy, memory and dreams, climaxing in a powerful surprise ending.
The play’s two main characters reflect the conflicted feelings survivors often describe, especially back in those pre–Shoah Project days 25 years ago.
“Very often survivors either talk about it a lot or don’t talk about it at all,” Margulies notes, “and that’s more or less the case with Lola and Max. Lola is much more inclined to reflect, and Max has no desire to do that except in his dreams.”
Despite the somber topics of mental illness and the Holocaust, Margulies managed to inject plenty of humor in the play, much of it from the foul-mouthed and incorrigible Debby. In the case of this sad family, any mental illness suffered after imprisonment in Bergen-Belsen skipped a generation.
The play tells the story of Holocaust survivors Max and Lola, who relocate from New York to a low-end Florida condo partly to escape their mentally ill and obese daughter, Debby. In no time, Debby tracks them down with her underage, mildly retarded boyfriend in tow.
“I conceived of Debby as a kind of receptacle of all of [Max and Lola’s] hopes, dreams and nightmares,” says Margulies.
Margulies, 54, drew inspiration for the play in part from personal experience: One of his closest childhood friends was the son of survivors. “I grew up very much a part of his household in Brooklyn,” Margulies recalls. “I did absorb a fair amount of their history and their pathology.
“Some years after, he was telling me about his parents looking at condos in Florida. I struck on this image of these now-elderly people who survived unimaginable horror and are now achieving the epitome of the American dream: a place of one’s own in the sun. I decided there was a play there.”
That was in 1985. “The Model Apartment” premiered at the now-defunct L.A. Theater Center a few years after that, making its New York premiere in 1995 and winning an Obie Award. The Traveling Jewish Theatre production is the fifth staging of the play.
Margulies is best known for plays like “Brooklyn Boy” and “Dinner With Friends,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000.
He is himself a Brooklyn boy, and though his Jewish heritage looms large in several Margulies plays, he admits, “We didn’t go to synagogue, we went to Broadway. I came from a family that hardly observed birthdays, let alone Chanukah. It was a cultural Jewish upbringing.”
In addition to his work as a playwright, Margulies teaches English literature at Yale University.
Margulies’ newest work, “Time Stands Still,” opened a few weeks ago at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, and has garnered rave reviews. Whether it, too, will reap its author any prestigious awards doesn’t matter much to Margulies. He already snagged one of the most coveted.
Asked what it meant to have won the Pulitzer, Margulies says, “It means all my plays are written by a Pulitzer Prize winner.”
“The Model Apartment” by Donald Margulies plays now through April 5 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St., S.F. $30-$34. Information: (415) 292-1233 or www.atjt.com.