At the Peltz Theater in the of Tolerance, a Remarkable New Play Gives Renewed Life to Anne Frank’s Resonant Legacy
By John Lavitt
Culver City, CA (The Hollywood Times) 06/29/2019
“In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.”
— Samuel Beckett
In “Anne, A New Play” at the Peltz Theater in the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance, a powerful and heartbreaking restoration of Anne Frank is taking place. Produced by Suzi Dietz, the play is based on an adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank by Dutch playwrights Jessica Durlacher and Leon de Winter. Their new take reframes the traditional story through an unconventional lens. Instead of turning the Annex in Amsterdam where Anne (a remarkable Ava Lalezarzadeh), her family, the Van Pels family, and Mr. Pfeffer hid from the Nazis for over two years into a solo setting, the new lens expands the story by imagining it through the devastating perspective of Anne’s fever dream. Indeed, in the beginning of the play, Anne imagines herself in Paris after the war, a young writer in a café telling her story to a publisher hungry to hear what the young girl has endured.
Adapted by Nick Blaemire from a translation by Susan Massotty, the premier American version of “Anne, A New Play” is directed with precision and compassion by Eve Brandstein. From the outset, there is no doubt that everyone involved feels a deep historical responsibility to the subject. They want to do justice to Anne’s remarkable account of an intolerable moment in modern history. Yes, modern because if Anne had lived through the war, she would have been ninety years old today. Indeed, she could have been in the audience to behold this performance. As Nick Blaemire says, “These historical figures are our better angels. The play is about what we can all do for each other, and how we can live up to Anne’s story — to make sure it never happens again.”
Given such a responsibility and feeling the weight on my own shoulders, I am going to tear down the fourth fall of journalism and write in the first person. Being deeply affected by the play and its resonant power, I wish to express this review in my own voice. As an adolescent, I was deeply affected by The Diary of a Young Girl, which is known widely today as The Diary of Anne Frank. In Anne’s voice, ranging from her practical frustrations to her exquisite hope, I heard my own voice when I was her age. After reading her diary and seeing the 4-part mini-series Holocaust (1978) on network television, I felt awakened to the horror of what had happened to my people even before my Bar Mitzvah.
Watching the Holocaust mini-series, I remember being so torn apart by the mixed marriage story between the Jewish artist played by James Woods and his Christian wife played by Meryl Streep. It killed me when he was sent to the concentration camps, and the abuse she endured in her attempts to help him. Bringing him food to the camp, she was forced to sexually humiliate herself to achieve her goals of trying to save her ultimately doomed beloved.
It hit me hard. I remember punching my pillow in my bedroom at night after watching the series, swearing that I would never let it happen again. One year later, when I was Bar Mitzvahed, I memorialized this moment without letting anyone know what I was planning to do. Before my Torah portion, I stopped the service to the surprise of the Rabbi, telling my gathered family and friends that I had decided to dedicate my Bar Mitzvah to all the children that died in the Holocaust and never got to experience their coming of age and the gift of such a beautiful recognition by the greater community.
Unlike The Diary of Anne Frank, which has been universally accepted as a landmark account of the Holocaust, the mini-series was widely criticized. The Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a scathing condemnation in The New York Times, saying without any wiggle room that the mini-series was, “Untrue, offensive, cheap: as a TV production, the film an insult to those who perished and to those who survived. In? spite of its name, this ‘docu‐drama’ is not about what some of us remember as the Holocaust. Am I too harsh? Too sensitive, perhaps. But then, the film is not sensitive enough. It tries to show what cannot even be imagined. It transforms an ontological event into soap‐opera.”
There is a reason why I have gone into such detail about the mini-series Holocaust and Elie Wiesel’s adverse reaction to it. Wiesel’s condemnation echoed in my soul. I felt I had to reconsider every Holocaust movie or play that I had ever seen, including Stephen Spielberg’s award-winning Schindler’s List and a theatrical version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Hadn’t they all been trying to show what cannot even be imagined? Is there a valid argument to be made that no fictional accounts of the Holocaust are acceptable? Should we limit ourselves to documentary takes like Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) or Alan Resnais’ Night and Fog (1956)?
Doubts brought on by such questions affected me as I entered the Peltz Theater to see “Anne, A New Play” for the first time. Prior to entering the theater, I spent time in the immersive Anne Frank Exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance. Told in her own words, Anne Frank and her family come to life through a collection of rare artifacts, unique documents, and photographs. The ultimate moment is when you see a facsimile of Anne’s diary, written in her own hand. The penmanship alone is transporting as if you are sitting by her side as she writes with a desperate passion.
Hence, given such an experience right before entering the theater, I was apprehensive as I took my seat. Could any play do justice to this young girl? How could the play not feel reductive and almost obvious? I knew such questions were unfair before the lights even went down, but I cannot ignore the truth. Doubts plagued my mind. Flipping through my program, these qualms were partially allayed when I read a message from the director.
In a convincing statement, Eve Brandstein writes, “I met Anne through her diary when I was in grade school, and ever since I have felt very close to her, imagining her as a sister, a best friend, and a powerful voice of courage and resilience that lives deep within me. I know I am not alone… This is not a simple history lesson. It is a resonant clarion call to open our eyes and see the world we live in, threatened by the tide of rising anti-Semitism, racism, and intolerance.”
As the lights went down, I held close to the force of this statement. At the same time, I kept thinking of the quotation by the Irish Nobel Prize in Literature-winning writer Samuel Beckett — “In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness.” I wear a black rubber band on my wrist with this saying imprinted in yellow on it. Beckett was writing about the incredible responsibility of creating art in the shadows of the concentration camps after the war. Without precision, such art would be reduced to caricature and soap opera. I prayed this would not be the case with “Anne, A New Play” because I knew her legacy deserved the finest precision of effort and voice.
I could not be happier at this moment to announce what you already know from the beginning of this review: “Anne, A New Play” is a revelation. Beyond the excellence of the direction and the outstanding performance of the cast as a well-polished ensemble, the text breathes new life into an archetypal story. There are several reasons why the play is so successful, and these reasons deserve to be detailed without giving away the essentials. I will do my best to enlighten without ruining anything for those lucky and smart enough to take a chance in a busy world and attend a performance. Continuing through July 22nd with nighttime performances on Sundays and Mondays plus a 3pm matinee on Sundays, the “Anne, A New Play” should not be missed. Here are five reasons why:
1) The framing device that shifts our perspective of having Anne imagine her encounter with the publisher in Paris is incredibly effective. Throughout the play, the Publisher (played with emotional nuance by African American actor Timothy P. Brown) serves as a POV (point of view) character as Anne relates the story of what happened right before and during the family’s hiding in the Annex. At times, once the story is underway, Anne steps outside of the narrative to share commentary with the publisher. Such commentary illuminates the story while keeping us deeply engaged in the desperate plight of this young girl. One of the most powerful exchanges between them is as follows:
I was scared that I would exhaust my supply
of common sense by the time the war was over
And did you?
I wish I knew.
2) More so than in any film or play version that I have seen before (and admittedly vaguely recall), there seems to be a profound sense of transition. By starting in Anne’s spacious home, then moving to the cramped space of the Annex, first we experience the loss of space. Then we experience the loss of privacy as the others move into the Annex. And the losses continue to multiply as time slows to a crawl and more sacrifices are demanded of the refugees to ensure their survival. The loss of possessions and valuables is handled particularly well. You experience this transition not only from the adolescent perspective of Anne, but also from the adult perspective of her parents and the other adults in the Annex. The loss of the fur coat of Mrs. Van Pels (Mary Gordon Murray in an emotionally detailed performance) becomes a heartbreaking symbol.
3) Anne is not presented as the golden child gifted by God with true brilliance. Watching her performance, I wrote down a list of adjectives to describe this utter teenager: loud, smart, obnoxious, charming, inquisitive, distraught, dramatic, bitter, hopeful, frightened, petulant, rebellious, kind, brilliant, and regretful. Although she is much older than the thirteen-year old Anne, Ava Lalezarzadeh plays young with ease. Utterly convincing as Anne, she humanizes the angel and brings her down to earth. By making Anne flawed and lovely and terribly human, she makes the tragedy of what happened that much harder to fathom. Moreover, Anne’s awakening as a young woman as expressed through her relationship with Peter Van Pels (Kevin Matsumoto in a measured and compassionate performance) is deftly handled. Anne and Peter want to live to experience their youth, and you desperately want them to live as well.
4) As the moral heart and the pained soul of the Annex, Rob Brownstein is phenomenal as Otto Frank. We understand why Anne loved her father so much and identified so profoundly with him. Although we feel sympathy for her mother Edith (a resonant Andrea Gwynnel), we cannot help but side with Anne. Edith is a sweet human being, broken down by the experience, but Otto is the brave cornerstone of the Annex, and his courage keeps it all together for so long. It was so close. They should have survived.
5) The ending. I wish I could write about the ending here. I can tell you that I was in tears, and I was honored to be able to give the ensemble a standing ovation. I can tell you that former California Senator and Governor Pete Wilson was in the audience as well, and he also was on his feet at the end. But I will not tell you about the ending. I can only hope that you see it before the run of this play ends.
At this moment, as the ending looms, I will return with you to the stark wisdom of Samuel Beckett — “In the end, it is the end that is the worst. We must go on a little more. We must go on a long time more.” I also will remember what Anne wrote in her diary — “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
For Anne’s sake, let’s promise not to wait any longer.