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The Diary of Anne Frank
Email From A Dutch Reader
Forget all about the controversy that has surrounded the play currently at the Music Box and the famous diary that seeded it. Wendy Kesselman's rewrite of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's 1955 Pulitzer prize-winning The Diary of Anne Frank should be seen by everyone, whether they saw the original or not, whether they're sixteen or seventy. It is more Jewish, (the original actually was just barely so), but that doesn't mean it's for Jewish audiences only nor that it's lost its universal ity. The ending is less upbeat and thus perhaps harder to take, but the play remains upbeat and inspirational simply by virtue of the diary's survival as a symbolic document -- whether in book, film or theatrical form.
For me Anne Frank and her family have always had great personal meaning since the Dutch branch of my German Jewish family tree was destroyed in a similar fashion. My Dutch family had two brothers instead of two sisters, a father who was a Dutch citizen and a mother who, like the Franks, was from Frankfurt, Germany. My family's only document of their struggle, is a letter sent to America by young Fritz and Peter's mother. Its first page was filled with the urgent efforts underfoot to find a survival route; on the other side of the page was a chocolate cake recipe. (Like Mrs. Van Dam the boys' mother was an outstanding cook who wore her hair in the same elegant rolled up style that in the play disappears by Act 2 -- one more symbol of the many little and big losses endured in that annex). Even without such a personal connection to The Diary of Anne Frank it defies critical commentary based on questions such as "is it entertaining?" Is it a well-made play? Is it funny? Is it sad? Yet it warrants a "yes" answer on all these counts.
If emotional arousal and enlightenment is part of your definition of an entertaining must-see play, The Diary most assuredly fits the bill. It is also entertaining by virtue of its beautiful and authentic staging and acting. The play is well-made by virtue of it's move beyond the by now famous diary of a young girl to depict a microcosm of the Nazis' millions of victims -- Anne Frank's immediate family, the four other people who shared their terrible adventure and their protectors.
While the play is a tragedy, its sadness is interspersed with just enough funny (and emotionally heart-warming) moments to make the overriding tension bearable. That tension is not one whit diminished by the fact that the outcome is known from the moment the Frank family climbs the steps to the faithfully recreated replica (designed by Adrianne Lobel and imaginatively lit by Brian MacDewitt ) of their real-life "secret annex" in Amsterdam.
It would take a stone not to be moved by their plight. It also doesn't take a psychologist to see how the unbearable stress of their situation exacerbates the various frailties of these very decent people. Even the most imperfect members of the ensemble, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan as played to perfection by Harris Yulin and Linda Lavin win our hearts as they reach into themselves and display the feeling they have for each other and this circumstance-created extended family.
With Yulin and Lavin's performances established as first-rate, let's move on to the rest of the cast. >The young movie actress Natalie Portman makes an auspicious debut as a stage actress. What she lacks in experience is compensated for by her naturalness in expressing the dificulty of being a physically and mentally overactive teenager forced to grow up in a painfully claustrophic and fear-ridden situation. Her romance with the more introverted Peter Van Daan (sensitively portrayed Jonathan Kaplan) nicely adds a romantic touch with which a young '90s audience can identify. The scenes between Anne and her quieter, older sister Margot (Missy Yager), her anxious mother (Sophie Hayden) and the endearingly quirky dentist, Mr. Dussel (Austin Pendleton) are equally affecting and splendidly acted. George Hearn give the right stature to Otto Frank as the organizer of the whole enterprise and also its perennial peacekeeper and cheerleader. While Miep Gies (Jessica Walling) is a minor player from an acting viewpoint, her role is of course major to the story. She risks her life to bring food and books and news to the hiding place and, in one particularly touching scene, a pair of red shoes for the growing Anne.
While I began this review suggesting that you forget the controversy that has surrounded this play, it would not be complete without discussing the thirty percent or more revisions made by Wendy Kesselman. When I first saw the advance announcement about this new version, there seemed to be more emphasis on the casting of a movie actress as Anne and the increased sexual explicitness than the much needed redressing of the white-out of the story's raison d'être as a dramatically rendered document of the Jewish slaughter during the Holocaust. I felt apprehensive that this new play might turn Anne Frank into an ever more homogenized Everygirl teenager. Fortunately this is not the case. The more explicitly sexual awareness does indeed widen Anne's universal appeal but it never overwhelms or skewers the play's main theme.
The major changes pertain to the play's re-establishment of these characters as being where they are because they are Jewish and heightens the unimaginable terror of this kind of hidden existence. Some of the new text takes the form of voice-overs (some by Anne, some broadcast excepts). Thanks to James Lapine's vivid direction the changes are smoothly integrated into the dramatic structure. At the opening, when the Franks climb up the steps to their hiding place, they are literally wearing most of their clothes on their backs and the Yellow Star on all their coats requires no words to explain their Jewishness -- nor can this awareness be removed as is clear from the imprint left on the fabric even after Anne rips hers off. As the annex residents establish their domestic routines, Lapine introduces unsettling noises (trains, air-raid sirens, etc.) to keep the horror lurking outside ever present. A Hanukkah celebration is interrupted by a scary bump (a robber) in the offices below.
The real "new" explicitness is in that heightened terror and Anne's awareness of what was happening in the concentration camps. Her much quoted optimistic statement "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart" is still there, but it is not the sum up of her experiences. Her diary while no longer quite the symbol of hope in the midst of evil is instead her instrument for bearing witness. For arousing future generations.