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 inexcus-able sentimentalization of a tragic, angry document.

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 inexcus-able 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) hu-man capacity for nobility.” Wendy Kesselman’s new adap-tation 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, nonethe-less. With its slamming doors (on Adrianne Lobel’s altogether too airy split-level apartment set) and loud arguing, this production infrequently reaches (and cer-tainly doesn’t sustain) the op-pressive, 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 cos-tumes, 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 con-cocted 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 re-vival, for example, includes a narrated passage originally ex-cised 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 rela-tionship between the 13-year-old heroine (played by Natalie Port-man) and 16-year-old Peter Van Daan (Jonathan Kaplan) remains B-movie sweetheart romance. References, fleeting or otherwise, to Zionism and the specific per-secution of Jews are made clear in a play that, in its earlier ver-sion, 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 sup-porting characters, a collection of one-dimensional types: Otto Frank (George Hearn), Anne’s father, is the unconvincing em-bodiment 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. Dus-sel (Austin Pendleton) is a hypo-chondriac 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 char-acters 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 charac-ter 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 contempo-rary cheekiness with the thought-ful young author scribbling in her notepad, and whether due to Portman’s inexperience or Lap-ine’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.

The Diary of Anne Frank

Music Box Theater; 2, 998 seats; $ 60 top

  • Production: A David Stone, Amy Nederlander-Case, Jon B. Platt, Jujamcyn Theaters & Hal Luftig presentation, in association with Harriet Newman Leve and James D. Stern, of a play in two acts by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Directed by James Lapine.
  • Crew: Set, Adrianne Lobel; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Dan Moses Schreier; production stage manager, David Hyslop. Opened Dec. 4, 1997; reviewed Dec. 2. Running time: 2 hours.
  • Cast: <B>Cast:</B> Natalie Portman (Anne Frank), George Hearn (Otto Frank), Sophie Hayden (Edith Frank), Missy Yager (Margot Frank), Jessica Walling (Miep Gies), Jonathan Kaplan (Peter Van Daan), Philip Goodwin (Mr. Kraler), Harris Yulin (Mr. Van Daan), Linda Lavin (Mrs. Van Daan), Austin Pendleton (Mr. Dussel), Peter Kybart (First Man), James Hallett (Second Man), Eddie Kaye Thomas (Third Man).
  • Music By: