A New 'Anne Frank' Still Stuck in the 50s

December 21, 1997


When Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl" for the 1955 Broadway stage production, they wrote a play in terms that would speak to audiences of the mid-1950s.

The war against Nazi Germany had been over only 10 years. Israel was a new state, aged seven. Elie Wiesel's "Night" would not be published in English for another five years.

Adolf Eichmann was alive and well and living in South America and, thus, Hannah Arendt hadn't yet had occasion to write "Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil."

The magnitude of the Holocaust was still being discovered. It remained incomprehensible, except in the testimonies of particular survivors and witnesses.

In that context, Anne Frank's diary, a record of the two years the Frank family spent hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam loft, was an unexpected best seller, eventually translated into 56 languages. "The Diary of Anne Frank," the Hacketts' serviceable adaptation, became a successful Broadway play.

The book, the stage version and George Stevens's opulently photographed and scored 1959 film provided a way to understand the Holocaust: they apotheosized the precocious German-Jewish girl who, just weeks before the war's end, died at Bergen-Belsen. Especially in the play and the film, Anne Frank took on the idealized dimensions of a bright, sensitive, teen-ager who might have stepped out of a bright, sensitive Hollywood movie of the day.

Unfortunately, she still has those dimensions in the latest revival of the Hacketts' play, "newly adapted by" Wendy Kesselman and directed by James Lapine, which is now at the Music Box Theater.

Much has been written about Ms. Kesselman's attempts to emphasize the story's Jewish ethnicity, which more recent critics have said the Hacketts downplayed for 1950s audiences, and about the restoration of some of the rougher edges to Anne's character, which Otto Frank deleted from her diary in the first published manuscript.

Yet in spite of the tinkering (and it seems just that for anyone who remembers the original stage production with respect), "The Diary of Anne Frank" can now be identified as an artifact of conventional Broadway play-making of the 1950s. It is decent enough for its time but, because it is so banally written, it fails to recreate today the sense of urgency, loss and surprise with which it was greeted in the 1950s.

Time has overtaken not the story but the method of the play. In an unhappy way, this production might prompt you to remember "Shoah," Claude Lanzmann's remarkable, almost nine-and-a-half-hour documentary released in 1985. "Shoah" is an oral history of the Holocaust that evokes its meaning not with old newsreels nor by any attempts to reconstruct the past.

Instead, the film remains entirely in the present of the 1980s. It recalls the past through the testimony of survivors. These people cling to their memories even as time puts those memories at an ever-increasing distance, covering them in scar tissue, eventually to wipe them out, the ultimate indignity the film means to subvert.

There is no such grand design behind "The Diary of Anne Frank" and none was ever intended. In celebrating Anne's diary in the simple terms of theatrical melodrama, the play, you now realize, doesn't do justice to the original document, to its author, or to the experience it represents.

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Cynthia Ozick, the novelist and essayist, damned Otto Frank and the entire Anne Frank industry that has grown up around the diary. Anne's real story, she wrote, has been "bluntly and arrogantly denied." Yet in suggesting that the diary might better have been burned, Ms. Ozick seemed to be exercising the artist's license to be outrageous to make a point.

The slightly new version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" certainly isn't helped by the performance of Natalie Portman, 16, the Israeli-born, American-bred film actress who makes her stage debut playing Anne aged 13 to 15.

Ms. Portman's Anne is exceptionally pretty in the tradition of earlier diarists played by Susan Strasberg and Millie Perkins.

She is also earnestly artificial, having been directed to behave in a fashion that might have embarrassed even Sandra Dee's Gidget. Ms. Portman seems never to walk if she can skip; when she lies on the floor, tummy down, heels up, writing in her beloved diary, her little feet are forever kicking back and forth like a 4-year-old's. The girl we see has no relation to the thoughts she speaks, either in person or as prerecorded narration.

Ms. Kesselman has dropped the play's original framing device in which Otto Frank returns to Amsterdam from Auschwitz to find Anne's diary. Instead, the new opening is more forthright: Otto, his wife, Edith, and their two daughters, Margot and Anne, with only those possessions they can carry, arrive to go into hiding in the loft that will be their home until the war's end.

They are soon followed by their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, the Van Daans' 16-year-old son, Peter, and, still later, by Dussel, the timid, bewildered dentist.

Though the loft, which they call the annex, is supposed to be cruelly cramped for eight people, the set at the Music Box, which is said to be modeled on the original annex, looks spacious. Apparently more attention has been paid to architectural accuracy than to the theatrical illusion of confinement, which so severely tests the mettle of these besieged fugitives.

Ms. Kesselman's interpolations are very mild indeed. Anne's disagreements with her mother are something less than momentous. At one point she acknowledges her budding sexuality in a fervent, self-addressed admission of curiosity about her own body and her desire to touch another's. It is a good speech, but it seems to belong to a different character in another play.

Left intact is Anne's declaration of her continuing belief that people are good at heart. In the original script, this speech ends the play on a note of high, wishful improbability as Otto Frank finishes reading Anne's diary.

In the new version, it is more or less shoehorned in as a distant, almost muffled voiceover when Anne and the others are taken into custody. Anne's last lines now are far darker, and the play ends with the focus on Otto Frank, the bereft survivor of the camps, as he graphically describes what eventually happened to each of the other members of his household.

Here is a "Diary of Anne Frank" without an Anne, which is why the production appears to be carried by supporting actors in roles that, though not exactly complex, are something less than idealized. Especially good are Harris Yulin and Linda Lavin as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, decent folk in ordinary life who come close to cracking in the terrible circumstances of their confinement.

Also noteworthy is Austin Pendleton as Dussel, the fussy dentist who is allergic to cats. There is nothing wrong with George Hearn and Sophie Hayden, who play Anne's parents, and Missy Yager, as Margot Frank, but they don't have much to do except serve the plot.

This production will be of interest mainly to those who have never before encountered "The Diary," like the woman in her 20s who sat in front of me the night I saw the play. As her escort was whispering in her ear just before the performance began, she suddenly drew back and stared at him in surprise. "You mean," she said, "she dies at the end?"

Time is brutal.


Yet with wit and ingenuity time can sometimes be outmaneuvered, as the Drama Department is demonstrating with its ambitious, buoyant show, "Uncle Tom's Cabin or Life Among the Lowly" at the Greenwich House Theater. Its last performance before the holidays is today at 3, but it will reopen on Jan. 6 for a brief additional run.

The production is no mere adaptation of the Harriet Beecher Stowe classic, but an exuberant consideration of the novel that, a year after its publication in 1852, had sold 305,000 copies in this country and an estimated 2,500,000 copies in the rest of the world in English and in translation.

As "derived by" Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand, who is also the director, the show is a collage, alternately funny and genuinely moving. It includes dramatized scenes from the book, bits and pieces of six different stage adaptations, critical commentaries, minstrel show variations and excerpts from slave narratives.

Five very gifted actors -- three men and two women -- play the dozens of roles without regard to their own sex or race, sometimes slipping from one character into another in mid-scene. This keeps the members of the audience deliciously alert even as they sometimes struggle to find their way through the various narratives, testimonies and sheer high jinks.

It helps to have some knowledge of the novel, but it is not essential. The show is so provocative that it should send you back to the source material, as well as to such subsidiary texts as Edmund Wilson's fine essay on Stowe in his collection "Patriotic Gore."

Among other things, this "Uncle Tom's Cabin" successfully evokes the extraordinary phenomenon set off by the writer of whom Abraham Lincoln said, when she came to the White House: "So this is the little lady who made this big war."

The show doesn't try to recreate the past. Rather, it brings the past to life in present theatrical terms that embrace history, manners, morals, stereotypes, ideals, fears and aspirations. The result is another original theatrical work by the group that brought you "June Moon" (which is now in previews at the Variety Arts Theater, where it reopens in January) and the current "As Bees in Honey Drown" at the Lucille Lortel Theater.

The splendid cast members: K. Todd Freeman, Stacy Highsmith, Gretchen Krich, Noel Robichaux and David Wheir.


There is no doubt about it now: "The Sunshine Boys" is Neil Simon's "War and Peace," his "Young Frankenstein," his "Long Day's Journey Into Night," his "Gold Rush," his chef-d'oeuvre. That is apparent in the National Actors Theater's hilarious, beautifully performed, very sweet revival of the 1972 Broadway hit. Jack Klugman and Tony Randall are the stars, John Tillinger is the director, and it's now at the Lyceum Theater.

Everything came perfectly together for Simon when he wrote this tale of two ancient vaudevillians, Willie Clark (Klugman) and Al Lewis (Randall), who are asked to team up again for a television special years after their partnership dissolved in high dudgeon. "The Sunshine Boys" is about theater, about male friendship and about comedy as an endlessly rewarding if exhausting way of life.

The play is also as elastic as the women's girdles that once were the staple of Bob Hope's monologues. "The Sunshine Boys" fits the particular talents of the team of Klugman and Randall as snugly as it did those of Jack Albertson and Sam Levine, the stars of the first Broadway production, and Walter Matthau and George Burns, the stars of the still incomparable 1975 film.

Of course Klugman and Randall have been preparing for this for years with their television series based on Simon's runner-up chef-d'oeuvre, "The Odd Couple." They don't disappoint.

Klugman is grandly funny as the irascible, slobbish, short-term memory-impaired Clark and Randall the model of a pricelessly patient straight-man as the fastidious Lewis. Together they create an evening of Broadway theater memorable for its explosive laughter.

My only critical comment: Why didn't they do it before?

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/anne-frank-per-canby.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:49 EDT