This Broadway-bound revival of the 1955 Broadway success “The Diary of Anne Frank” cries out for inspired, technically proficient leadership. There’s a lot of hard work to be done by all involved in this James Lapine staging, and two leading cast members in particular need further attention: young Hollywood actress Natalie Portman, upon whose theatrically inexperienced shoulders the title role rests heavily, and Broadway pro George Hearn, whose performance as Anne Frank’s father is so underplayed as to be almost invisible.
The production (reviewed following a week of previews) is blessed by Linda Lavin’s sensitivity and utter professionalism as flirty, fur-coat-loving Mrs. Van Daan, arguably the play’s most sure-fire role. She is well matched by Harris Yulin’s utterly apt reading of Mr. Van Daan, Sophie Hayden giving a lovely, quiet characterization of Anne’s mother, and Austin Pendleton, never less quirky or more honest as the dentist Mr. Dussel.
In the underdeveloped roles of the Van Daans’ teenage son, Peter, Anne’s older sister, Margot, and Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler (the two remarkable people who helped hide the families in that secret Amsterdam attic during WWII), Jonathan Kaplan, Rachel Miner, Jessica Walling and Philip Goodwin are perfectly adequate.
But 42 years after its initial Broadway success, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s prize-winning adaptation of the famous diary, recently the target of criticism for being sanitized and insufficiently Jewish, does play more like a blueprint than a fully developed play (Wendy Kesselman’s new adaptation notwithstanding). “Anne Frank” relies heavily on its director and cast to flesh out characters and create the fraught, claustrophobic atmosphere, and that has yet to happen with this revival.
The most obvious problems are Lapine’s technically shaky direction and the performances of Portman and Hearn. Portman’s Anne comes across as an all-American teenager of 1997; the actress urgently needs help in establishing a feeling for the 1940s. Furthermore, her histrionic performance lacks nuance and modulation. The play needs an Anne the audience can warm to.
As for Hearn, his performance simply isn’t coming across to the audience, an easily fixed problem. Even as it is, he gives the production its one moving, involving moment when he relates how the seven other people in the attic subsequently died in concentration camps (in a speech written by Kesselman for the new adaptation).
Adrianne Lobel’s two-story cross-section setting is playable. and Martin Pakledinaz has a fine feeling for the clothes of the period, but Brian MacDevitt’s lighting doesn’t always seem in sync with what’s happening onstage, and the offstage broadcast narration (along with recordings of Hitler, Churchill , the BBC and air-raid sirens) isn’t always as smoothly integrated as it should be.
It is Lavin who, most of all, points this production in the right direction. Her performance is beautifully wrought, particularly when Mrs. Van Daan is forced to give up her beloved fur coat or comfort her guilt-ridden husband. It won’t be easy, but if the rest of the production can follow her lead, “Anne Frank” will be in much better shape.