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DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, THE - Review - Theater - New York ...

http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=2&res=9...

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THEATER REVIEW; This Time, Another Anne Confronts Life In the Attic

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Broadway/Off Broadway

OR Readers' Highest-Rated

By BEN BRANTLEY Published: December 5, 1997, Friday

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To see Natalie Portman on the stage of the Music Box Theater is to understand what Proust meant when he spoke of girls in flower. Ms. Portman, a film actress making her Broadway debut, is only 16, and despite her precocious resume, she gives off a pure rosebud freshness that can't be faked. There is ineffable grace in her awkwardness, and her very skin seems to glow with the promise of miraculous transformations.

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That the fate of the character Ms. Portman portrays is known in advance by most of her audience turns that radiance into something that is also infinitely chilling, however, and you may even feel guilty about basking in the warmth of a flame that you realize will be horribly and abruptly extinguished.

Ms. Portman has the title role in the new production of ''The Diary of Anne Frank,'' the dramatization of the legendary journals of a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. And whatever the shortcomings of Ms. Portman's performance and the production itself, which opened last night, the evening never lets us forget the inhuman darkness waiting to claim its incandescently human heroine.

This version, adapted (which in this instance means almost entirely rewritten) by Wendy Kesselman from Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's 1955 script and directed by James Lapine, offers no treacly consolations about the triumph of the spirit. Indeed, the effect is more like watching a vibrant, exquisite fawn seen through the lens of a hunter's rifle.

An uncompromising steadiness of gaze, embedded in a bleak sense of historical context, is the strongest element in a production more notable for its moral conscientiousness than for theatrical inspiration. This version is undeniably moving, with snuffles and sobs from the audience beginning well before the first act is over, and there are beautifully drawn, organic-seeming moments throughout.

Yet in portraying the denizens of the the famous ''secret annex,'' the actors, who include such top-of-the-line veterans as Linda Lavin and George Hearn, don't always project the sense of a unified ensemble; it is often as if they had set their performances to different metronomes, when the feeling of a natural flow of time is essential.

As a consequence, the production can at times seem little more than serviceable. And yet somehow with this work, particularly as Ms. Kesselman has reshaped it, serviceable can be enough. The horror of its central situation, and the natural dramatic tightness it lends itself to, continue to hold the attention with an iron clamp. It also doesn't hurt that many people who see the play bring their own resonant associations with the diary. Clear, honorable and workmanlike, this ''Anne Frank'' doesn't achieve greatness in itself. But it doesn't diminish the magnitude of the events behind it.

It should be noted that ''Anne Frank'' returns to Broadway with an unwieldy load of polemical baggage, including furious debates over the diaries' appropriation as a pop commodity. The most resounding salvo was fired two months ago in an essay in The New Yorker by the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick, who argued that Anne Frank's journals had been ''infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized,'' especially in their translation to the stage. ''In celebrating Anne Frank's years in the secret annex,'' Ms. Ozick wrote, ''the nature and meaning of her death has been, in effect, forestalled.''

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