Although Ben Brantley called this a “neglected masterwork”, by Don Margulies, it is seriously flawed, even if never less than interesting. This story of an elderly couple, Holocaust survivors, who retire to Florida but find that they cannot escape the legacy of that horrific experience, especially in how it affected their adult, mentally disturbed daughter, is often compelling and theatrically imaginative. Margulies can write emotionally charged scenes that are convincing individually, but the gaps in credibility and tendentious symbolism prevent any satisfying dramatic resolution.
When we first meet the couple, they are moving, temporarily, into a “model apartment” in Florida, because the condominium they bought was not yet in a livable state when they arrived with all their possessions. But the “model” was not ready for habitation either, considering that the TV and refrigerator were meant for show only, and were inoperable. Instead of moving to a motel, they adjust to the situation by minimizing their own discomfort. We learn that, in one way or another, this is how they have lived their entire lives.
The play proceeds from that unlikely opening – since their lack of preparation for this major change defies credibility – to the appearance of their daughter, an obese manic-depressive who trailed them from New York. The tone shifts, quite suddenly, to the kind of intense, dysfunctional family dramas that have flourished here since late O’Neill, but with the leaps into fantasy that were part of Arthur Miller’s arsenal.
It doesn’t work. The adult daughter is not remotely credible, and her screeching harangues seem to be the author’s literal denunciation of the couple’s self-defeating obsessions instead of the pain of a fully realized character. This is fatal, since this young woman’s fate is the dramatic climax of the play. Especially unconvincing is the author’s apparently sincere belief that the couple’s attempt to raise their daughter as the substitute for the child they lost in the Holocaust is the source of her illness; half-baked Freudianism even when trotted out in the film Ordinary People in 1980. We thus cannot condemn the couple for how they treat her, since she is only a device to impose guilt on the main characters. Sorry, I really meant “GUILT”.
Primary Stages’ first-rate production cannot hide the play’s organic deficiencies. It mishandles a serious theme, one which was treated far more successfully in Saul Bellow’s dazzling novel, The Victim.