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Theatre in Review: Otto Frank (Under the Radar/Public Theater)

Roger Guenveur Smith. Photo: Justin Zsebe

Roger Guenveur Smith's solo piece examines, in strikingly poetic language, the title figure, a Holocaust survivor and caretaker of his daughter's astounding legacy. As portrayed here, Otto Frank's stream-of-consciousness account blends his enduring sorrow with the sometimes-bizarre details of managing one of the world's most famous literary properties. As the only member of his family to emerge from the death camps, Otto's pain and guilt are not assuaged by the fact that his daughter Anne's diary has touched so many. Or, as he puts it, he "would gladly trade those one million pen pals for just two/last seen in a sisterly embrace/twisted in the snow/or so it was reported by a reliable witness."

That line is typical of the text's methodology, the throwaway reference to the diary's millions of readers juxtaposed with an understated allusion to the murders of Anne and her sister, followed by words offering a slight, ironic distance from the horror. Indeed, many passages expand our understanding of the Frank family's terrible story. For example, Otto recalls his failed attempts to move his loved ones to the US or Cuba -- a plan derailed because the family's records were lost in the bombing of Rotterdam -- adding, "So no rhumba records and no Upper West Side, and you will never be a mother and you will never be a bride." It is especially chilling to imagine that because of a bureaucratic snafu, they might have had an unimaginably different life.

Of course, Anne's diary became a literary sensation and global best-seller, leading to a smash Broadway play and an awards-laden Hollywood film. (We will draw a veil over the musical version, Yours, Anne seen Off Broadway in 1985.) Smith's text doesn't shy away from the strange way that a document of the Holocaust spawned a burgeoning industry. Otto, who admits to skipping the stage and film premieres -- "On both occasions," he says, "my tuxedo was pressed and ready to go" -- also reports, "Here in the house which now bears your name/Where once we huddled in silence/There is Shelley Winters' Oscar encased in glass." Nevertheless, he denies the charges of "those who accuse me of deracinating you/Taking the Jew out of you," even as he confesses wanting Audrey Hepburn for the film.

Indeed, casting a shadow over Otto Frank is Cynthia Ozick's scathing 1997 essay, "Who Owns Anne Frank?," which concludes, shockingly, that, given the vulgarizations and all-purpose moralizing to which the diary has been subjected, it would have been better off reduced to ashes. (Ozick details Otto's edits to the diary, which removed passages alluding to Anne's sexuality; she also discusses the intensive wrangling over the play's development, in which, she says, Anne "became an all-American girl, an echo of the perky character in Junior Miss.") In a passage that seems to prove Ozick's point, Otto says, "And now in Los Angeles there is this young poet named Arnold Gutierrez/He has tattooed an image of your face onto his own/His reply when asked why/He said that like you he is willing to die for his art." There are surely fewer things more appalling than having a world-historical crime reduced to a fanboy art project.

At times, Smith also seems to play into Ozick's hands when the text calls up allusions to Confederate statues and the massacres in Charlestown, Pittsburgh, and other cities. Surely, each act of evil is specific and should be addressed as such; pulling them together into a feel-bad recital achieves nothing constructive. Then again, it's hard to shake off Otto's description of Auschwitz after liberation, discovered by "colored American G.I.'s with tears in their eyes/Even in Mississippi they had not smelled such deprivation/The stench/The horror/Man's inhumanity to man." For once, the awfulness of Jim Crow pales in comparison to the depravity on display.

There's a lot going on here, and many ideas could be teased out and further developed. Also, as performed by Smith, seated a table in dim lighting -- the designer is Kirk Wilson -- accompanied by Marc Anthony Thompson's live sound, which often feels mawkish and unnecessary, the effect is less than spellbinding. Also, Smith's distraught vocal production - nearly every line is delivered with a sob in his throat -- quickly becomes exhausting. The power of the piece lies in its words, from which its mannered presentation is an unwelcome distraction. Obviously, Otto Frank gives one plenty to think about and, just as obviously, it left me feeling decidedly ambivalent. Even in this unsatisfying production, however, it is likely to stick in your head for days after you've seen it. --David Barbour

(17 January 2023)

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