Ustinov Studio, Bath – until 22 December 2018
The nouns that best define Laurence Boswell’s time as the AD of the Ustinov Studio are ambition and courage. This little gem in the South West, with a seating capacity of just 126, has over the past seven years presented UK premieres of the best of North American and European writing, works that don’t necessarily whet the commercial appetites of big producers (though Boswell’s starry address book certainly helps in that respect) but thrum with the big ideas and the weightiest of themes under conventional play structures.
Donald Margulies’ The Model Apartment is a typical choice for the Ustinov, a work whose meaning and its overall effect will continue to burrow under the surface of its audience members for weeks to come. In the moment, it’s the rich acting from its four-strong cast that keeps you glued. It is only later – when waking in the middle of the night, thoughts rushing through your head – that you realise Margulies’ thesis (about how the effects of the Holocaust trickle down, not just from the original survivors but for the next generations) has hit hard right in the solar plexus.
It is 1985 and retirees Lola and Max have escaped New York for a condo in the sunshine state of Florida. Their new home is a few days away from being ready, so they have been assigned a model apartment for a few nights, a suitably generic, pristine place of ‘luxury’ in designer Tim Shortall’s impeccably realised set. Yet it is soon revealed that the surface sheen is empty, the refrigerator not working, the television set without a back, as ashtray glued to the table. Just like Max and Lola, appearances can be deceptive.
Soon their daughter Debby bursts onto the stage, hurling insults and marking her territory over her weary parents. An early life of being beat down means that they still do not have the vocabulary or the emotional strength to fight back against their oppression. The atrocities may have changed from Nazi death camps to abuse spewing relatives, but their emotional stoicism to trauma has not shifted.
Emily Bruni’s daughter is a wild mix of American obscenity and mental fragility as the daughter who has left her med centre and her pills in New York, brought her homeless lover along for the ride (Enyi Okoronkwo brings his charming innocence to bear again) and continues to haunt her parents every waking moment. Her padding to convey the obese daughter may not be as fully realised as the one we saw Boswell utilise in The Whale earlier in the year (she looks like a thin women padded up), but Bruni makes something of a character that on the page, with its mix of rambling monologues and shifting emotional levels, feels nigh impossible to play.
As Lola and Max Diana Quick and Ian Gelder give the high-quality performances that have now become de riguer at this BA1 venue. Like the apartment, there is a surface gentility to the characters that hide something wrong underneath. When they make love, it is with a pawing intensity, as though savouring their last moment of joy on this earth. Both seem at their happiest when they slip into fantasy reminiscence, Lola with her oft-told tale of being close confidant to Anne Frank and Max in his dream-like encounters with the beautiful, mysterious and fragile Diana, also played by Bruni.
As the play reaches its third act Margulies keeps shifting perspectives and asking the hard questions. Has a lifetime of being exposed to stories of the Holocaust atrocities damaged their daughter beyond repair? Has America helped mend or just simply cut Lola and Max off from their emotional cores in this land of impeccable design and empty emotionality?
It’s a work that suggests that the damage of the Holocaust is still stretching its tentacles wide, a piece that gnaws away so you don’t realise what it’s doing until reflection afterwards. In short, it’s another Boswell triumph, a play that will not gain the garlands come awards season but one that will stay swirling in the subconscious of those who see it.
The Model Apartment plays at the Ustinov Studio until the 22nd December.