Misreading Anne Frank

Why would anyone want to mount a revival of The Diary of Anne Frank? In a certain respect, the film Schindler's List has determined the definitive way to remember the unspeakable atrocities of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, thereby rendering less eloquent depictions of those events redundant. What new insight might the current Broadway production hope to promote? In other words, just what does this new presentation of the play want us to remember?

In fact, it is not the production but rather the script that is new here. The production now playing at the Music Box Theater is not a revival, but rather a redaction by Wendy Kesselman of the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Regrettably, no rationale is given to justify or explain Kesselman's adaptation, whose anti-Christian slant will leave many in the audience bemused if not downright outraged.

If there is any reason to see this production, it rests in Natalie Portman's stunning, exuberant portrayal of Anne. Portman exhibits the profound self-possession, poignancy, and convicted verve that one might associate with St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Kesselman's anti-Christian slant will leave many bemused if not downright outraged.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the production is disappointing and even disturbing. It is painful to watch the impotency of the human spirit when co-opted into self-sacrifice. The staging fails to give the audience a strong sense of the destitution of these people, of what it is to be cooped up in an annex with no possibility of bathing, without enough food, with only their fears.

The horror or their predicament does break through at times. In perhaps the most unsettling scene, Mr. Van Daan, father of the family sharing the Franks' hiding place, is caught stealing bread in the dead of night. We wince as his son Peter witnesses the selfishness, deception, and cowardice that the boy realizes can consume any man—even his own father. It stands as an irrefutable reminder of how savage the power of pettiness can be when we refuse to make of life a sincere gift of self.

The impetuous response of Mr. Dussel, another refugee, to this heinous injustice is to start parceling out the rotten potatoes on the spot. But the only response that can truly satisfy such a crisis is mercy.

A brief moment of redemption appears in a moving (new) monologue spoken by Mrs. Van Daan (delivered with elegant power by Linda Lavin) to her unrepentant spouse. By reminding him of the romance they shared in the long-ago days of their courtship, she attempts to revive her husband's belief in the all-encompassing power of love. She says to him tenderly: “Putti, next time you're hungry, hold on to me.” He does so immediately. It makes us think of the meaning of the Eucharist.

More often though, misrepresentations of the original material mar the new production. One exchange between Peter Van Daan, Anne, and her sister Margot, is particularly disquieting. In the original play, Anne says: “I wish you had a religion, Peter.” He replies: “No, thanks. Not me.” In Kesselman's mutation, however, Peter says: “When I get out of here I'm never going to tell anyone that I'm Jewish.” Margot responds by saying: “What? You mean you're going to get yourself baptized?” The quantum leap to such a conclusion is both absurd and abrasive. If anything, Peter seems to suggest that he will in the future profess agnosticism. And were not Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, the heroic resisters who made this refuge possible, themselves “baptized?” Kesselman's adaptation renders Margot a cold-hearted, unthinking, ungrateful bigot. Such a suggestion is itself unthinkable.

The momentum of the entire play builds to the suspenseful climax when the Nazis come to hustle away the castaways. Incredibly, the play's director, James Lapine, completely misses the moment. Three boyish soldiers sneak into the attic like impish adolescents up to some prank. In the original script, Nazis never appear on-stage. Instead, the sense of terror for those in hiding comes across through the clamor of bells ringing, doors crashing, voices shouting, and heavy boots smashing their way into the sanctuary. Imagination can supply a far more horrifying effect than depiction.

The insinuation of a non-dramatic, concluding monologue by Anne's father, Otto Frank, (unconvincingly delivered by the understudy Peter Kybart at the performance I attended) is the final shortfall of the new production. It manages to relate what happens to every character we've encountered except for Miep and Mr. Kraler—the two people who risk their lives to save their persecuted friends, and with whom the audience has established an emotional bond. Because we truly care about them, we feel deprived when they disappear without a mention.

The original play included these characters in the drama's resolution. In this new production (which should accordingly be given its own distinct title) Miep and Kraler are meant to be forgotten.

At the end of the play, Anne's writing literally is on the wall. One would have hoped for that from the beginning instead of so much interloping. It is one thing to recall accurately the past to prompt people to remember well. It is quite another to revise remembrance according to an adapter's agenda. Then memory becomes manipulation. Whose diary is it, anyway?

The Diary of Anne Frank is now playing at the Music Box Theater, 239 W. 45th St., New York City.

Dominican Father Peter John Cameron, a Register contributing writer, is an award-winning playwright with a master's degree in playwriting from The Catholic University of America.