Solid Production Puts Story First in Broadway-Bound `Anne Frank'

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Directed by James Lapine Starring Natalie Portman, Linda Lavin and George Hearn At the Colonial Theatre Through November 16

Unlike most modern plays, The Diary of Anne Frank tells a simple story simply, and this is precisely what makes it an effective drama. James Lapine's new production, in town for a limited engagement before moving on to Broadway, understands this well. It preserves the candor of Anne's diaries on stage, bringing the audience directly into her world. Although the play has been adapted to include some newly published material from the diary, the spirit remains the same: a straightforward communication of what it was like to be an ebullient, hopeful young girl forced to live in fear and hiding.

This production--the first Broadway revival since the original was premiered over 40 years ago--strives for clarity of vision, both in expressing Anne's emotions and systematically portraying how each member of her family copes with their tragic situation. Playwright Wendy Kesselman has carefully adapted and seamlessly integrated the new material with the original. These additions, mostly accounts of Anne's developing sexuality and her stormy relations with her mother and sister, were edited out of the original publication of the diary by Anne's father Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the family. Since Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's original script already portrayed Anne as a disarmingly "real" character, Kesselman's adaptation doesn't enhance the play with much new emotional depth. Yet it certainly doesn't prevent this production from being a cleanly performed and eloquently realized retelling of Anne Frank's story.

The play, like the diary, is not a unilaterally depressing work. The Frank family shares their hiding space, the top floors of the annex to an office building in Amsterdam, with Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, the Van Daan's son Peter and Mr. Dussel, a dentist. Although the interaction of these characters in their tight, closed world causes a good deal of tension, there is an overarching spirit of generosity: at no time are they all reduced to despair. The eight members of this group form a loose extended family, and the most touching scenes are those that show how this family finds a way to function in the most terrible of situations. Although Anne claims to resent her mother and occasionally complains about the others as well, she sees some good in all of them. Even as she skips restlessly around the annex, provoking--as children often do--both laughter and irritation, she reveals an unusually mature perspective and generous heart.

Portraying the duality of Anne's character is what Natalie Portman, in the title role, does best. Portman is a very sophisticated 16-year old actress--a quality that has already become apparent in roles in such recent films as Beautiful Girls and Everyone Says I Love You. At first, her desire to show Anne as a young and bubbly teenager comes across as a bit overeager: she doesn't sit still for a moment, and her frantic pacing and leg--swinging doesn't seem fully believable. But once Anne begins to spend more time in the annex--maturing emotionally, interacting with her family and developing a crush on Peter Van Daan--Portman's performance becomes more balanced and subtle. By the time the play ends and the family is taken away by the Gestapo, her Anne has evolved into a complex teenager, playful yet strong, making her loss all the more heartbreaking.

Linda Lavin, as Mrs. Van Daan, stands out in the play's showiest role: her Mrs. Van Daan is an irrepressible chatterer, energetically discussing her flirtatious past and the superior quality of her potato latkes, but she's also worldly-wise--a popular characterization of a Jewish mother. Austin Pendleton makes Mr. Dussel both droll and sympathetic. As Otto Frank, George Hearn does come across as a caring and protective father figure, but one oddly formal with his family: his diction is too consistently calm and collected, in a situation of such tremendous pressure, to be convincing. Sophie Hayden, as Mrs. Frank, also lacks emotional variation. Nevertheless, the principal actors work well together, especially in complementing Anne's many-sided personality.

The gentle but serious tone of the play necessitates an ending that goes beyond the literal storyline. Despite the historical appropriateness of the suddenness with which the family is marched out of its hiding place, the contemplative nature of Anne's diaries calls for a more thoughtful and generous finale. The production's solution is to project her words over the entire set: as the lights dim, Anne's writing becomes visible, covering all the rooms that she has inhabited. A voice-over by Portman tells the audience of Anne's hope that her words should live on even after she dies. Thus is Anne honored for recording her short life and giving us the gift of her story.

Nothing about this production is groundbreaking, but the work put in by Lapine and his cast is admirable. A greater variation of feeling and behavior by Mr. and Mrs. Frank would make some of the play's flatter scenes more interesting, but the performance is upheld by the simple emotional power of the story. The ideas of this production of are all at the surface, candidly expressed, which is just what the story requires. The Diary of Anne Frank retains its potency as a work that illuminates a terrible chapter of the past and one girl's remarkable capacity for happiness.