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July 2, 1998

THEATER REVIEW

"Diary of Anne Frank" garners few laughs
Frankly, Broadway comedy needs a rewrite

A Play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Newly Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by James Lapine
Featuring Natalie Portman, George Hearn,
Sophie Hayden, Linda Lavin, Harris Yulin,
Austin Pendleton
At The Music Box Theatre, 239 W.45th St.

The much touted new comedy "The Diary of Anne Frank" fails to deliver many laughs. While in parts quite amusing, the play as a whole falls markedly short of its comedic potential.

The story chronicles a year and a half in the life of the Franks, an average working couple, and their wacky next door neighbors, the Van Daans. Under persecution during World War II, they hide in the attic of Mr. Frank’s joke shop (a detail which is never made clear in the script). The actors do the best with the material they’ve been given, although the comic tone is a tricky one. Early in the story, George Hearn (Otto Frank) and Harris Yulin have a "Who’s on First" style exchange about "not having enough to eat."

This is one of the more uproarious moments, but is awfully underplayed. One can’t help but wonder, also, whether the whole sequence could have been a lot punchier. For example, what if the food shortage was due to the fact that Gallagher and his Sledge-O-Matic were living in the house?

The story loses its comic footing around this time, and Austin Pendleton (as the finicky dentist Mr. Dussel) is grossly miscast. When he hushes the others — "Be quiet, or we’ll all get caught" — the fact that he has mistakenly asked two girls to the same dinner party is not made sufficiently clear. Two Nazis barge into the house and hold the family at gunpoint, which is a joke that hasn’t worked in other movies, either. The Gestapo agents’ timing is way off, which prevented Anne’s "spit take" that was presumably written into the script.

I wasn’t the only one not laughing. Literally the whole theater could tell the jokes were bombing. I nudged one gentleman sitting next to me and asked, "Do you think this is funny?" With tear-filled eyes, he shook his head. There was my answer on that.

Not wishing to be the kind of critic who would just tear down, I thought I might include some suggestions for comedy improvement.

Anne Frank’s Script:

Mr. Van Daan: So we just wait here until we die.
Mrs. Van Daan: (hysterically) I can’t stand it! I’ll kill myself! I’ll kill myself!
Mr. Van Daan: For God’s sake, stop it!
Mrs. Van Daan: I think you’d be glad if I did. I think you want me to die!

Clearly Ms. Frank’s comedy leans a bit toward pretension.

My rewrite:

Mr. Van Daan: So we just wait here until we die. This apartment is so dirty, the rats have vaccuum cleaners!
Mrs. Van Daan: I can’t stand it! I’ll kill myself! I’ll kill myself!
Mr. Van Daan: While you’re at it, take your mother with you! I tell you, she’s so fat, when she gets dressed in the morning, she needs a building permit!
(A golf ball lands on the stage. Moments later, Tim Conway enters, dressed as "Dorf." Next to him, on a golf cart, is Bob Hope.)
Dorf: Mind if we play through?
Mr. Van Daan: Carry on.
(They exit.)

In any case, theatergoers should hedge their bets. One final comment: for a family "in hiding," they sure are out onstage a great deal. Perhaps if they had been behind the couch, or disguised as a plant, it would have lent a bit more believability to the story. As it stands, thumbs down. I guess you just had to be there.

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