The Pain Remains

Two standbys of Holocaust drama get slick but effective revivals.

How do you fit the Holocaust onto a stage? Carefully. Face the fact too faithfully and you get an unassimilable horror show. Soften and shape it into showbiz formula and you risk leaving it “bowdlerized … infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified.”

That’s what Cynthia Ozick said of the 1955 Broadway smash The Diary of Anne Frank. But she’s only partly right, as demonstrated both by Intiman’s new production of it and by that other Holocaust hit, Cabaret, revived in a more startlingly mutated form at the Fifth Avenue. You bet they bowdlerize reality. And yet they remain unsettlingly entertaining in some parallel world where art and kitsch intersect.

Lucy DeVito proves a sturdy starlet to play Anne Frank. She combines the brassy sass of her mom, Cheers‘ Rhea Perlman, and the runty, hunched shoulders and big dark eyes of her dad, Danny DeVito. Shy of 5 feet tall, she’s believably 13 (though actually 25). Her winning ornery streak and cute, crisp, classic sitcom style carry the family banner, if not quite as high as her parents. If she were Lucy DeNobody, she might still have won the part, but less publicity.

Cute is crucial. Anne’s diary made it from page to stage because it was cut and cuted up by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who wrote the sitcomlike Father of the Bride and the sitcommy parts of It’s a Wonderful Life (the Commie parts were written by Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets).

The real diary is unplayable, partly because 1955 couldn’t tolerate the real Anne’s horniness and mother-hatred, mostly because being trapped in an annex trying to be quiet until Nazis knock is claustrophobic and undramatic. The rewriters injected comic bits, banter akin to their Thin Man flicks (which portrayed their own marriage), and revealed character in a less harshly unflattering spotlight than Anne’s. In a play with only one real plot turn, known in advance, you need the writers’ chugging showbiz efficiency, their shiny workmanship—what their pal F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the quiet and malicious racket” of Hackett’s typewriter.

Director Sari Ketter captures both periods—’40s Amsterdam and midcentury middlebrow American drama. As Anne’s mother, Amy Thone is not the real diary’s suffocating presence, but a ’50s hausfrau who only wishes Anne would be colorless like her meeker sister, Margot (Lindsay Evans, who nicely echoes Thone’s mousy conventional virtue). Alban Dennis gives a slightly acrid wacky-neighbor spin to Dussel, Anne’s irritable bachelor dentist roommate, an aesthetic descendant of Dennis the Menace’s sourpuss foil, Mr. Wilson.

Connor Toms is solid as Peter van Daan, the surly teen Anne woos, and Michael Winters more solid and surly as his dad. Mr. and Mrs. van Daan get to be less noble than the rest, saving the play from saintliness. Shellie Shulkin’s Mrs. van Daan is good—preening, flashing Mr. Frank her gams, venomously envying Anne’s budding sexuality, clutching the fur coat her father gave her and which they must now sell to survive. The play needs her raw, clawing emotion, and Shulkin delivers.

Matthew Boston has the toughest role: Anne’s father, who led the attic refugees and later censored the diary and gave it to the world. He’s utterly, flawlessly upright; Boston redeems him with understated subtlety and tensile strength.

A recent rival adaptation restored some of Anne’s grit and her Jewish identity (which her dad played down to stress the story’s universality). Better to go with the lighter Hackett/Goodrich version. Yes, it’s misleading that the play yanks one of Anne’s diary entries—”people are really good at heart”—and makes it sum up her life. Another of her lines might’ve been more apt, the one about the Nazis being “the cruelest monsters ever to walk the earth.”

That line is truer, but it belongs to history, not drama. The fully polished work of art that made her immortal in showbiz is intrinsically kitschy and sentimental, yet the darkness still manages to shine through. In its star and its style, this production has what Anne Frank said people need, and the play desperately needs: “zest.”

Cabaret is another Nazi-themed Broadway and movie smash that springs from a censored, sex-positive, mother-hating diarist, only this time the censor was the author, Christopher Isherwood. Germans killed his dad in the Great War, so to peeve Mum he moved to Berlin on her dime in 1929 and ecstatically discovered the Hirschfeld Museum of Sex and his book, Sexual Anomalies and Perversions. His fave: ostensibly innocent wrestling that turned into sex with him on top. Within 20 years he had 400 lovers. Talk about zest!

To avoid jail, he was coy about gay stuff in his book The Berlin Stories. He’s a bizarrely passive, ghostly character in the musical his semi-memoirs spawned. Michael York was like balsa wood as the Isherwood figure, Cliff, in the classic 1972 Cabaret film; despite chaste wrestling/impregnation scenes, the 5th Avenue’s Cliff (Louis Hobson) is like a less-ballsy version of the virginal NBC page on 30 Rock.

Not his fault, and he’s a good singer. It’s just that he plays a cipher; the hero of the piece is really the sexily decadent scene itself, and the stars are Cliff’s torch-song ho of a roommate, Sally (Tari Kelly), and her employer, the Emcee (Nick Garrison) at the seedy Kit Kat Club. Both Sally, a hedonist tramp living off her mom, and the Emcee, a gleeful voyeur, are Isherwood’s self-portraits.

Seattle’s great seedy club stage, Re-bar, launched Garrison to fame. He spontaneously combusts when the Emcee interacts with the audience (real 5th Avenue patrons sipping wine in seats right by the stage), and is damn good getting his Rocky Horror on in the extraordinarily glitzified song-and-dance routines. He takes top acting honors, too. Though Kelly belts out the classic Kander/Ebb tunes, especially the love lament “Maybe This Time,” with bigger pipes (why do they amplify her so?), she lacks the screwball loopiness and sinister neuroticism the part calls out for in anguish.

I’m pleased to see no-budget sensation Garrison arrive in a 5th Avenue–produced touring show with money to burn, yet sad to see the production screw him out of the sheer amoral creepiness that made Joel Grey’s career. Grey’s Emcee stood chillingly outside history, even while up to his nose in Weimar’s most brownshirt-provoking vices. He presented Nazism as the most theatrically spectacular perversion; he didn’t give a rip about its victims. But Garrison’s Emcee doubles over in sympathy as Nazis kick innocents in the gut. When his Kit Kat Club changes its decor from S/M to SS, he is only following orders. Inwardly, his heart grieves.

Previous versions of Cabaret blamed Weimar decadents for bringing on Nazism. This one views Weimar as a brief, liberating cultural flowering (like the Prague Spring) stomped by Nazi jackboots. This is historically more fair-minded, and definitely the way Isherwood saw it, but it vitiates the drama. This production’s softheartedness as compared to the original Broadway show and film blunts the impact of the Emcee’s scariest number, “If You Could See Her,” a love song to a gorilla who turns out to be a Jewess. If the Emcee isn’t tacitly complicit in Nazism, the terrifyingly racist song makes no sense.

There’s a finely acted but inert subplot about Cliff and Sally’s aged landlady, Fräulein Schneider (Suzy Hunt), and her thug-thwarted romance with the Jewish grocer of her dreams, Herr Schultz (Allen Fitzpatrick). Hunt gives Schneider verve and poignance; Schultz’s imploding ego is impressively delicate and funny. But Isherwood went to Berlin to score something more sizzlingly seamy than such earnest sweetness. It violates the nihilism that drove prior Cabarets to greatness. And their bland songs (not heard in the movie) suck compared to the Kurt Weill–ish vileness and hooky, metallic staccato of “Willkommen,” “The Money Song,” and “Two Ladies” (heard both in the movie and, delightfully, here).

Still, the bottom line is those songs come off well. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the pastiche of Nazi uplift anthems presaging the regime that scrubbed Weimar clean, is horribly lovely, ending with a human turned swastika. Even in a sentimentalized, visually loud, spectacularly Vegas-ish production, Cabaret remains kitsch with a winning sting.