KPBS AIRDATE: August 6, 1997
With the cover of New York magazine lamenting the gradual disappearance of American Jews, what better time to explore Jewish heritage and the mark it has made on its modern-day offspring. Two plays on San Diego stages look at living with a history of decimation and Diaspora. “The Model Apartment” is at the La Jolla Playhouse and “The Legacy” is onstage at the Old Globe Theatre. Both deal with deeply disturbing issues, and both try to inject comedy into horrific circumstances. In both cases, it makes for a disquieting but also somewhat unsatisfying theatre experience.
The more lightweight in terms of playwriting is Mark Harelik’s “The Legacy.” It has angered Jewish audiences across the country, because it seemingly pits Judaism against Christian Science. This is the third incarnation of the play to reach San Diego. It was first seen at the Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays, then got a full production at the Hahn. In this final version, Harelik has toned down the dichotomy but not the diatribes. The play is still very preachy about religion and faith. But the central question that dogs the characters and elevates the piece, is how does a young mother deal with her impending death from cancer. What kind of God would allow this to happen? Judaism gives her no usable answers, and Christian Science elates her momentarily but ultimately provides false hope.
Her son Nathan, age 13, is our narrator, but he gives us no insight. He provides background, follow-up and comic relief. Mostly, he’s in the play, not outside it, and that leaves his narrator role unformed. Harelik is also unsettled in his flirtation with the spiritual. The first act is a pretty naturalistic family drama, and then whammo! In the second act, we get a melodrama and then, unexpectedly, the supernatural. Some sense of the otherworldly earlier on would have strengthened the play considerably. As for the religious issue, Harelik, for whom the story is distinctly autobiographical, seems to be saying that it’s not ultimately about any organized religion; he puts his faith in family.
The performances at the Globe are uniformly good; Harelik plays his father with apparent ease, a no-nonsense guy trying to hold his world together. A man separated from his people — in the wilds of Texas — but trying to instill in his son some connection to the past that he himself has lost. As Nathan, Joey Zimmerman has terrific presence and natural talent. But Director Laird Williamson never made a definitive decision between realism and the surreal, and the production suffers for it.
That same issue haunts “The Model Apartment,” where the dream sequences don’t work as well as they dysfunctional family drama. Justifiably acclaimed playwright Donald Margulies confronts survivors of the Holocaust, and their troubled offspring. There’s a large body of literature on these second-generation sufferers, who take on the pain of their parents, and often feel emotionally split in two — by the trauma of the past and reliving it in the present.
Margulies has extended this metaphor to the ultimate emotional split, schizophrenia. Debby stalks and haunts her parents as much as the memory of her father’s first and lost daughter, also named Deborah, and her mother’s (real or imagined) friendship with Anne Frank in Bergen-Belsen. Max and Lola have tried to escape from Debby, stealing off in the darkness to move into their retirement home in Florida. But the condo isn’t ready, and they’re forced to spend the night in a model apartment, where, like their lives, nothing is what it seems. The appliances are fake; the ashtrays are glued down. And there is no escape.
Debby and her retarded, black, homeless boyfriend descend like the wrath of God, and in her rantings, we start rethinking the notion of victim. This daughter cannot measure up to the prior one, cannot possibly incorporate her guilt and pain, and her parents’ tattooed numbers, repression and secrets, horror-stories and expectations into her everyday, TV-ridden, pop-culture life. They all get confused in her raving tirades, which Roberta Wallach takes way over the top. The cast is otherwise credible, but director Mark Rucker seems to be wrestling with the levels, messages and humor in the piece, whose precarious balance presents an enormous and complicated challenge.
Both these plays make you squirm and make you think. What is the legacy parents leave their children? And what does it mean to be a Jew in America today, where the TV box is empty and the spiritual well is running dry?
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.