Anne Frank : She’s Back! New and Improved?

The new, improved version of The Diary of Anne Frank has opened on Broadway, packaged like any commodity. It’s better! It’s different! It’s more Jewish!

But why, 40 years after it was first produced on Broadway, has it been revived? The question is far from frivolous. We ask it all the time about revivals of great classics. Let me say from the outset that, whatever the so-called improvements to the original, a Broadway potboiler is a Broadway potboiler is a Broadway potboiler. It never was a great play; it still isn’t. We have no need to be defensive or apologetic because its subject is the Holocaust. To the contrary, we should be put on red alert. Is the Holocaust an appropriate subject for a commercial venue thriving under the festive banner of Entertainment?

Why revive The Diary of Anne Frank today? You would think that theater, at least, had moved on. Do we need another old-fashioned drama, another good cry? The original tear-jerker was created by hacks from Anne Frank’s iconic diaries. The Hollywood screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett had previously worked on It’s a Wonderful Life and Easter Parade . Little wonder they managed to turn the already censored diaries into a near secular song to life. Anne Frank’s most famous line could have been written for them: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

As the Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim pointed out: “If all men are good, there was never an Auschwitz.” The safe, sentimental play and Otto Frank’s doctored version of the diary on which the 1950′s drama was based subverted and trivialized history. In her blistering condemnation of the Anne Frank industry in The New Yorker two months ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote that the mythic story has been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.”

The lady, obviously, is scandalized. (She forgot to mention “vandalized.”) At times, her zeal is overdramatized. But who would deny her the agony she feels and her outraged sense of betrayal? She is protesting, loud and clear, against the Holocaust amnesia actually caused by cheap, quite comforting Broadway fare such as The Diary of Anne Frank.

“Cheap sentimentality at the expense of great catastrophe,” Hannah Arendt wrote of the original play. And Ms. Ozick concludes at one point: “Almost every hand that has approached the diary with the well-meaning intention of publicizing it has contributed to the subversion of history.”

Why the new production? James Lapine, its director (and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of Sunday in the Park With George ), explained in a recent interview: “The play had to be made stageworthy for 1997. That is not to cast aspersions on the earlier production. It’s just a different era now. The war is not as present in people’s lives as it was then. Plus, there will be hordes of people coming … who know nothing about the Holocaust.”

Mr. Lapine appears to be saying, firstly, that when the war-or Holocaust-was more present in our lives, it was therefore O.K. to have a hackneyed play about it. But will “hordes of people” who today, apparently, “know nothing about the Holocaust” now go to Broadway to learn all about it?

Has it come to this? The reality of our memory and unending nightmare is now bequeathed to Broadway and Steven Spielberg. If there are “hordes of people,” they are ignorant people. I cannot accept that any home proud to be called civilized-and any Jewish home in particular-is so ignorant. We have been reared on the harrowing, indestructible testament of documentaries such as The Sorrow and the Pity, and Shoah, and the books of Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, among others. Go, or be dragged, to a Holocaust museum. But do not tell us that dinner and a Broadway show are an answer.

“We wanted to deepen the Jewish themes, to confront the Holocaust more directly,” explained David Stone, one of the producers of the new Diary of Anne Frank. It’s an honorable enough intention, though it reveals the original play to be nonsensical. It avoided the Holocaust; it neutralized Jewish themes. The new version has been adapted by Wendy Kesselman from the complete, uncensored diaries, published in 1995. Otto Frank cut passages describing, for example, his daughter’s adolescent sexual awakening, her resentment of her mother, as well as references to “the cruelest monsters ever to walk the earth.”

The outcome is solemn and dutiful (as if Cynthia Ozick were hovering menacingly over the entire proceedings). Mr. Lapine has never been an inspired director. His notion of making the Holocaust “relevant” is to punctuate a scene with a loud recording of a Hitler rally or the sound of a train thundering over tracks in menacing red light.

The adapter, Ms. Kesselman, is so conscientious that one senses the “B” student, anxious not to risk offense. The Holocaust is now more present, but the play remains a safe potboiler. “No one’s leaving! If we panic, we are lost!” “I make the best latkes you ever tasted.” “Stop! I can’t bear it!” “I’m sorry about Mother. We just don’t get along.” There is new material, yet there’s nothing we don’t already know, nothing we haven’t already seen in second-rate dramas elsewhere or a TV movie of the week. Yet some in the audience were in tears as if on cue, as if attending a pious ritual, or soap opera, in which only the monstrous end is too terrible for words.

Does the new, improved Diary of Anne Frank subvert history-as Ms. Ozick convincingly said of the original? I don’t think it does. I don’t think it’s that important. It’s just a marginally better version of a mediocre play. Ms. Ozick has written one of them, too. The Shawl, her stage adaptation of her own novella, was produced at the Jewish Repertory Theater two seasons ago. Starring Dianne Wiest, directed by Sidney Lumet, her prestigious, well-intentioned first play about Holocaust denial and memory turned out-frankly-to be a forgettable mediocrity.

We could say of Ms. Ozick, the dramatist, what Henry James said following the failure of his play, Guy Domville -”I may have been meant for the Drama-God knows!-but I certainly wasn’t meant for the Theater.” No one, except lunatics and Hollywood hacks, consciously subverts history. For all kinds of reasons, some of them misguided, The Diary of Anne Frank has been revived on Broadway. It stars 16-year-old Natalie Portman as Anne, with a solid cast that includes George Hearn, Linda Lavin, Harris Yulin and Austin Pendleton, doing their stuff, doing their honest best.