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STAGE REVIEW : A Too-Real Character Inhabits an Unreal 'Model Apartment'

November 14, 1988|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theatre Critic

What to do about Debby? It's not just a problem for her father and mother in "The Model Apartment" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. It's a problem for playwright Donald Margulies.

Here's an example of a character too real for the play around her. Or perhaps of a play too unreal for its central figure.

Playwright Margulies wants to set the viewer thinking about the way that we deny the past even as we live in it; about the way that we are attracted to a safe harbor even when we know it's a mirage (the play is set in a sham model apartment); about the way that we punish our children for growing up exactly as we have programmed them to grow up; about the Holocaust; about schizophrenia, and probably about other matters as well.

But all we can think about is Debby--the fact of her. What would a normal family do with a great, galumphing daughter in her mid-20s who dresses like a bag lady, talks like a bright third-grader and keeps dragging home strange men?

Debby is a play in herself: a play and a half, in Chloe Webb's portrayal. Webb cuts off her adult censor and jumps back into the joys and the woes of being 7 years old. Yum, yum, good cereal. Mommy, there's no toilet paper in here!

Since this 7-year-old lives in a grown-up body, we know we're supposed to be horrified. We also sense that Margulies means Debby as an allegorical figure: a golem who keeps lumbering back into her parents' lives, dragging an unwelcome bagload of memories from the concentration camps--memories that they themselves have deposited with her.

An appalling notion, that of the Holocaust victim victimizing his own children with images of the camps. (A more common complaint among the children of camp survivors is that their parents didn't share their experience.) And Margulies doesn't quite make that charge.

But he does portray Debby's parents (Milton Selzer and Erica Yohn) as being responsible for Debby's condition, and as trying to walk away from that responsibility.

Which sounds very stern. Yet Margulies can't resist the comic possibilities of a character so unfettered that she and her new boyfriend (played by Zero Hubbard) will go at it on the floor of the model apartment, while Mommy and Daddy blush.

It's as if Father Ubu (or here Sister Ubu) had been let loose in a somewhat pretentious allegory of conscience. Sister wins.

Director Roberta Levitow is clearly on her side. She instructs Webb to let 'er rip, and she allows Selzer and Yohn to get as much fun and sympathy out of the parents as possible--more than they are given in the script.

That's theatrically wise, if intellectually evasive. A tougher production of this play couldn't possibly be taken as a tribute to the victims of Kristallnacht , as producer Bill Bushnell introduced it at Friday night's premiere.

The design, by John Iacovelli (set) and Liz Stillwell (lighting), suggests both the unreal future that the parents are trying to find and the dark past that they can't evade. "The Model Apartment" has all the conveniences, but it's too small for its chief tenant.

Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Closes Jan. 1. Tickets $22-$25. 514 S. Spring St. (213) 627-6500.

'THE MODEL APARTMENT'

Donald Margulies' play, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Director Roberta Levitow. Producer Diane White. Set John Iacovelli. Lighting Liz Stillwell. Costumes Ann Bruice. Sound Jon Gottlieb. Stage managers David Franklin, Joan Toggenburger. With Erica Yohn, Milton Selzer, Chloe Webb, Zero Hubbard.

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