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The Diary of Anne Frank (12/04/1997 - 06/14/1998)


 

New York Daily News: "Reappraisal Pays for 'Frank'"

Anne Frank lived most of her short life in a world turned upside down. As a Jew in hiding from the Nazis, her home was a prison. Her youthful high spirits created the danger of discovery. Her intelligence made her painfully aware of the horrors around her. Normality eating, sleeping, growing up was, in her circumstances, bizarre.

And it is, therefore, somehow right that this new stage version of Anne's diary also turns the usual standards of judgment on their heads. Words of praise like "smooth," "charming," "uplifting" would here be words of damnation. In a story about eight people who are hunted and murdered, neat techniques would be out of place. Equally, words that might normally indicate disapproval "awkward," "somber," "shapeless" are here a measure of the production's achievements.

No stage version can really reproduce the impact of the diary itself. We cannot, in the theater, see the inhabitants of the secret annex the Franks, their two daughters, the Van Daans, their son Peter, and the dentist Mr. Dussel through Anne's eyes. They have to be given an independent existence.

Anne herself inevitably becomes a more marginal presence.

Here, this is underlined by two factors. One is that Natalie Portman's Anne, though perfectly capable, is never a particularly captivating presence. And the other is that the performances of Harris Yulin and Linda Lavin as the Van Daans are so compelling that they slowly occupy the center of the play.

The real drama is not Anne's awakening into womanhood, but the gradual stripping away, under the pressure of poverty and loss, of the pride and flamboyance that were at the heart of the Van Daans' relationship.

This gives the play a bitter, painful feel that is, in fact, very much in keeping with the mood of Wendy Kesselman's radical reworking of the original 1955 adaptation. She has restored the terror. The domestic family scenes are punctuated with the noises of trains, air-raid sirens, mysterious disturbances.

And most important, the play no longer ends on a note of uplift, but with a merciless, chilling statement of what actually happened to these people.

The result is that James Lapine's production reproduces the wild swings between petty domestic concerns and monumental fear that must have occurred in the secret annex.

This doesn't make for easy, well-made theater.

Moods are created, then abruptly broken. Instead of a charmed family circle, we get a real sense of people getting on each other's nerves.

Instead of a nicely shaped tale, we get the sense of a story that cannot be finished because its ending was played out in awful, inarticulate horror.

For its refusal to bury that truth in artful evasion, this production commands, and deserves, our attention.


New York Daily News
12/05/1997

New York Post: "'Diary' Retains Its Power"

A clock chimes, birds clamor, rain rains - four people walk up a ramp and onto the stage of the Music Box. Each is wearing a yellow Star of David as they move onto an attic-like set.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" has started. Everyone in the theater knows the end. The story is not the issue. We are visiting history...we are touching an event to which we are all, young and old, connected.

I remember when I first went 'round to Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam, a tourist among tourists gazing upon relics, the commonplaces of a life snuffed out by anti-Semitism, a life that somehow had almost by chance been elected to symbolize the dead and tortured millions of the Holocaust.

I walked through those shabby, carefully preserved rooms in wary wonder, silently sobbing - partly in pain, partly in fear, partly in guilt. Every time we encounter her - on a page, on the stage, in a film – Anne Frank is unexpectedly memorable and horrifyingly affecting.

Book, play, movie - it doesn't really matter. The only compelling fact is Anne Frank herself, an ordinary but extraordinary girl who died before her time and became a symbol, jogging our memory and making our conscience ache.

The original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, first produced on Broadway in 1955 (three years after the book "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" was first published here), was not very good. It didn't matter. It worked. It had to work.

The diary itself, a conflation of two parallel manuscripts originally edited by her father, was slightly expurgated and edited for length.

The quite slick play - by star screenwriters perhaps best-known for their work on Frank Capra's movie "It's a Wonderful Life" – further emasculated it, playing down its Jewishness, Anne's emerging sexuality and her teen-age abrasiveness.

This new version, much adapted by Wendy Kesselman, uses the recent "definitive edition" of the diary, as well as other documentation, to offer what is certainly a far more authentic picture of Anne and the two Jewish families hiding from Nazi German persecution in that famous secret annex in Amsterdam.

It is still not a very good play: It's too heavy on pathos, surprisingly little happens, and there is scant illumination or development of character. We see a group under intense pressure and watch tensions build and see people collide. But Ibsen or Chekhov - or Miller or Williams - it isn't.

All the same, Kesselman has built on the solidly commercial original (Goodrich and Hackett were far, far from amateurs, and their dialogue crackled like Hollywood), and the director, James Lapine, has done a brilliant, often inspired, job of staging.

The look of the play is perfect, the casting seems impeccable, and Lapine has managed to squeeze the last droplet of emotional reality from the text with the subtlest means of body language and verbal intonation.

Even the play's complex blocking - that simple traffic around the stage - is used by Lapine to suggest the claustrophobic sense of prison and prisoners. Adrianne Lobel's setting - lit with careful imagination by Brian MacDevitt - makes the attic alive and credible, while Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are perfect in style while cleverly revealing the action's shabby progression.

As for the performances, they are all exquisitely on target. Natalie Portman's almost hoydenish yet intensely individual Anne could not be bettered; she is the Anne of all our waking nightmares.

George Hearn's grizzled and decent Otto Frank, Anne's father; Linda Lavin's wonderfully layered and complex account of the once-flighty Mrs. Van Daan; Harris Yulin as her stress-battered husband; and Austin Pendleton as the dentist Mr. Dussel, the neurotic cuckoo in their nest, all give virtuoso performances which wonderfully both hide and expose their virtuosity.

But equally warm words are due to Sophie Hayden as Anne's quiet-suffering mother; Jonathan Kaplan as Peter, the clumsy young man who awakens Anne's feel for love; and, indeed, all the others.

It is interesting that when the play was new, so many people commented on its demonstration of the indestructibility of the human spirit.

I suppose so. But, for me the message of this extraordinary theatrical adventure - this window into a lost world we all recognize - is its aftermath, the waste of the human spirit.

These people were murdered - squashed like cockroaches – because they were Jews at a somewhat more than usually inconvenient time to be Jewish.

Go and remember. By all means get sad. But also get angry.


New York Post
12/05/1997

New York Times: "This Time, Another Anne Confronts Life In the Attic"

To see Natalie Portman on the stage of the Music Box Theater is to understand what Proust meant when he spoke of girls in flower. Ms. Portman, a film actress making her Broadway debut, is only 16, and despite her precocious resume, she gives off a pure rosebud freshness that can't be faked. There is ineffable grace in her awkwardness, and her very skin seems to glow with the promise of miraculous transformations.

That the fate of the character Ms. Portman portrays is known in advance by most of her audience turns that radiance into something that is also infinitely chilling, however, and you may even feel guilty about basking in the warmth of a flame that you realize will be horribly and abruptly extinguished.

Ms. Portman has the title role in the new production of ''The Diary of Anne Frank,'' the dramatization of the legendary journals of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. And whatever the shortcomings of Ms. Portman's performance and the production itself, which opened last night, the evening never lets us forget the inhuman darkness waiting to claim its incandescently human heroine.

This version, adapted (which in this instance means almost entirely rewritten) by Wendy Kesselman from Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's 1955 script and directed by James Lapine, offers no treacly consolations about the triumph of the spirit. Indeed, the effect is more like watching a vibrant, exquisite fawn seen through the lens of a hunter's rifle.

An uncompromising steadiness of gaze, embedded in a bleak sense of historical context, is the strongest element in a production more notable for its moral conscientiousness than for theatrical inspiration. This version is undeniably moving, with snuffles and sobs from the audience beginning well before the first act is over, and there are beautifully drawn, organic-seeming moments throughout.

Yet in portraying the denizens of the the famous ''secret annex,'' the actors, who include such top-of-the-line veterans as Linda Lavin and George Hearn, don't always project the sense of a unified ensemble; it is often as if they had set their performances to different metronomes, when the feeling of a natural flow of time is essential.

As a consequence, the production can at times seem little more than serviceable. And yet somehow with this work, particularly as Ms. Kesselman has reshaped it, serviceable can be enough. The horror of its central situation, and the natural dramatic tightness it lends itself to, continue to hold the attention with an iron clamp. It also doesn't hurt that many people who see the play bring their own resonant associations with the diary. Clear, honorable and workmanlike, this ''Anne Frank'' doesn't achieve greatness in itself. But it doesn't diminish the magnitude of the events behind it.

It should be noted that ''Anne Frank'' returns to Broadway with an unwieldy load of polemical baggage, including furious debates over the diaries' appropriation as a pop commodity. The most resounding salvo was fired two months ago in an essay in The New Yorker by the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick, who argued that Anne Frank's journals had been ''infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized,'' especially in their translation to the stage. ''In celebrating Anne Frank's years in the secret annex,'' Ms. Ozick wrote, ''the nature and meaning of her death has been, in effect, forestalled.''

Ms. Kesselman's reworking of the original script, which incorporates new material from the complete editions of the diaries made available in the last decade, goes a long way in redressing such objections. The Goodrich-Hackett script, under the director Garson Kanin's supervision, had bleached out much of its source's specific ethnic content for fear of alienating mainstream audiences. Correspondingly, the unspeakable destiny that awaited Anne was eclipsed by a disproportionate emphasis on the girl's idealism.

This new interpretation never relaxes its awareness of the hostile world beyond the attic that was the Franks' sanctuary and prison for two claustrophobic years, nor of the religious identity that made them a quarry. The earlier version began in a scene of sentimental hindsight, with Anne's father discovering her diaries; this one leaps, with a gripping immediacy, into medias res.

Adrianne Lobel's set, modeled as closely as the Music Box permits on the rooms behind Otto Frank's offices where the family lived, is in full view when we arrive. And for any reader of the diaries, it is hauntingly eloquent before any actor appears.

So is the entrance of the Franks themselves: Otto (Mr. Hearn); his wife, Edith (Sophie Hayden), and their daughters, Margot (Missy Yager) and Ms. Portman's Anne, who arrive onstage wet and disoriented from the rainy trip to their new home. As they turn to us, struggling out of their coats, the large yellow stars sewn onto their clothes are suddenly, glaringly visible.

It's a wonderful piece of staging, unforced yet emphatic; it establishes Judaism, and the ways it is perceived, as the Franks' central defining identity. ''Look, it's still there,'' says Anne of the shadow of the star that remains after she has torn it off.

Indeed. Perplexed, often defiant references to what it means to be a Jew in the occupied Netherlands abound in the diaries, and Ms. Kesselman has incorporated as many as time allows: from Anne's catalogue of the activities forbidden Jews in Amsterdam to her vision of a former classmate in a concentration camp. The evolving sophistication of her writing about the world around her is far more evident now. So is her lyrical consideration of her burgeoning sexuality, and Ms. Kesselman has included a beautiful passage, nicely read by Ms. Portman, in which the girl describes the transporting effects of pictures of female nudes in art books.

As welcome as these additions are, one wishes that the voice-overs in which many of them are delivered had been less clumsily amplified. The effect is bizarre, as if Anne had found a public-address system in that attic. And there is also the sense that in combing through the rich trove of the unedited diaries, Ms. Kesselman was hard put to select just what to use. There is an occasional feeling of material being shoehorned in and confusingly truncated.

This gives the production a fragmentary quality its predecessor didn't have. Mr. Lapine's staging doesn't always accommodate the lapses from slice-of-life naturalism, though there are moments throughout, particularly among the younger actors, where everything clicks into place. And the climactic scene that finds the characters festively eating strawberries just before they are captured is everything it should be: a wrenching but impeccably rendered fall from what has become ordinary life into perdition.

Presumably, with further time the talented cast -- which includes Ms. Lavin, Harris Yulin, Austin Pendleton and the young Jonathan Kaplan as the other inhabitants of the annex -- will grow into a more comfortable ensemble. As it is, all the actors reach isolated, individual heights, most notably in the second act, when the stress of confinement finally brings out the Darwinian animal in everyone.

But in the first act, the performers are still oddly stiff as a team, and there's a sense, in ways that go beyond their characters' discomfort with unfamiliar circumstances, that they have yet to find a shared rhythm.

As the endlessly patient father, Mr. Hearn has an expressly theatrical, heroic voice and carriage that don't provide the troubled, affectionate shading to convey his all-important relationship with Anne. Ms. Lavin brings an impressive technical bravura to the role of the vain, anxious Mrs. Van Daan that achieves some splendid effects, as in a stunning new monologue for the character, and others that seem artificially calculated.

Mr. Pendleton appears slightly at sea as the graceless dentist who is forced to share Anne's room (though the scene in which she introduces him to their sleeping quarters is charming). Mr. Yulin, as the cynical, self-serving Mr. Van Daan, and Ms. Hayden, as Anne's fragile mother, are better in conveying, in very different ways, the aura of the older, more genteel world that shaped their characters.

Ms. Yager and Mr. Kaplan, as the Van Daan son with whom Anne discovers love, provide affectingly restrained portraits of adolescence cramped and frustrated by circumstance. Ms. Portman's comparative lack of stage experience shows, but in a strange way, this works to her advantage.

Even when her line readings are stilted, her delicately expressive face never fails her. It becomes, as it should, the evening's barometer of the changing moods in the annex. She has, moreover, an endlessly poignant quality of spontaneity, and of boundless energy in search of an outlet, that is subtly modulated as the evening goes on.

In Philip Roth's short novel ''The Ghost Writer,'' the narrator speaks of Anne the writer in her diaries. ''It's like watching an accelerated film of a fetus sprouting a face,'' he says. Without ever toning down her innate vitality, Ms. Portman does indeed progress from self-centered girlishness to the cusp of self-aware womanhood. To learn again that she will not be allowed to go further still shatters the heart.


New York Times
12/05/1997

Variety: "The Diary of Anne Frank"

New revisions of the 1955 play "The Diary of Anne Frank" might please the scholars and writers who've recently charged that the Frances Goodrich-Albert Hackett dramatization (and the 1959 film version) was an inexcusable sentimentalization of a tragic, angry document. While the diary (the argument goes) is a portrait of inescapable evil, the play (in the words of a 1956 Variety rave) became an "inspiring tribute to (the) human capacity for nobility." Wendy Kesselman's new adaptation at least partially reasserts the historic Anne's darker vision as well as the diary's overt Jewishness, clearly, if subtly, addressing the amazingly current debate.

Whether the adaptation quiets more mundane reservations -- does the 42-year-old play hold up as drama? -- is, regrettably, less convincing. James Lapine's unexceptional direction rarely achieves the power the story demands, and textual revisions far more drastic than Kesselman's would be needed to vitalize a play that is often as creaky as an old attic.

The demands on Lapine are all the more fierce given the play's famously preordained outcome. We know the Nazis eventually are going to storm through that annex door, but it's Lapine's tough, necessary job to build suspense, even terror, nonetheless. With its slamming doors (on Adrianne Lobel's altogether too airy split-level apartment set) and loud arguing, this production infrequently reaches (and certainly doesn't sustain) the oppressive, claustrophobic horror that might give it more emotional weight. The World War II radio broadcasts and Hitler recordings that punctuate various scenes intrude on any potential tension, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes, while period-appropriate, seem ever so slightly natty for a group locked two years in an attic.

That said, this "Diary" does try, in its own way, to be more than the '50s melodrama concocted by Goodrich and Hackett, a writing duo whose screenplays ("It's a Wonderful Life," "Father of the Bride," among others) clearly surpassed their at-best competent stage work. The revival, for example, includes a narrated passage originally excised from both the diary and hence the play in which Anne describes, both tenderly and explicitly, her schoolgirl crush on another girl, yet the play's relationship between the 13-year-old heroine (played by Natalie Portman) and 16-year-old Peter Van Daan (Jonathan Kaplan) remains B-movie sweetheart romance. References, fleeting or otherwise, to Zionism and the specific persecution of Jews are made clear in a play that, in its earlier version, has drawn criticism for universalizing, and thus watering down, its depiction of oppression.

Best of all is the production's new final scene, in which Anne's father -- the sole survivor of the eight Jews hiding, and ultimately discovered, in a secret annex of an Amsterdam office building -- addresses the audience to relate the fates of his family and friends. The speech, with its unadorned facts, is more shatter-ing than anything the original playwrights came up with.

Nowhere are the shortcomings of Goodrich and Hackett more evident than in the play's supporting characters, a collection of one-dimensional types: Otto Frank (George Hearn), Anne's father, is the unconvincing embodiment of goodness, patience and wisdom; Margot (Missy Yager), Anne's older sister, is shy and overshadowed by her more vibrant sibling, while young Peter is awkward and sweet; Mr. Dussel (Austin Pendleton) is a hypochondriac fussbudget.

Possibly the most interesting characters (certainly as per-formed here) are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Harris Yulin, Linda Lavin), an older married couple whose bickering barely conceals a devotion that never stoops to mawkishness. If the play's characters rely almost entirely on its actors for depth, this production owes its most notable successes to Yulin and, especially, Lavin. There is more panic and pain in Lavin's eyes than anywhere in the text.

Several others in the cast oc-casionally approach her level, particularly Yulin as her gruff husband and Pendleton as the neurotic dentist. But Kaplan, Yager and Sophie Hayden (as Anne's mother, Edith Frank) as often as not resort to staginess to flesh out their characters.

All of which brings us to the central element of the play and, not so happily, the production: Anne herself, portrayed by film actress Portman (in her Broadway debut) with little of the charm, budding genius or even brittle intelligence that the diary itself reveals. No small portion of the blame goes to the text, which essentially splits Anne's character into halves, her public face being the perky, headstrong teenager, the private, brooding side revealed only to her diary and, via narrated transcripts, the audience.

Portman, a likable, unaffected actress, can't manage to meld Anne's halves into a whole. It's hard to reconcile the contemporary cheekiness with the thoughtful young author scribbling in her notepad, and whether due to Portman's inexperience or Lapine's misguided direction, we never quite believe that the young girl skipping around the annex or flirting with her new beau has the inner life that produced one of the 20th century's most remarkable and enduring pieces of literature.


Variety
12/05/1997

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