October 13, 2019

New Play and Exhibit Wonders What If Anne Frank Lived?

Left to right: Nick Blaemire, Eve Brandstein, Rob Brownstein, Ava Lalezarzadeh and Aylam Orian. Photo by Gerri Miller

Had she not died in the Holocaust, Anne Frank might have lived to see her 90th birthday on June 12. Tragically, she perished at Bergen-Belsen at the age of 15, but the journal she wrote during the two years she spent in hiding has kept her story alive in book, play and film forms. “Anne,” a new theatrical adaptation of her diary that examines what would have happened had she lived, will have its U.S. premiere June 16 at the Museum of Tolerance, where a companion exhibit featuring artifacts, photos and documents from Frank’s life are on display.

As the play begins, Anne is a young woman who meets a publisher in a Paris café after the war and tells him her story as scenes from the secret annex in Amsterdam unfold. It employs minimal staging, making liberal use of words and images projected on the stage.

“We imagine what would happen if Anne had gotten to know her own success. It’s a ‘what if’ scenario,” writer Nick Blaemire told the Journal. He immediately was drawn to Dutch playwrights Jessica Durlacher and Leon de Winter’s take on the story. “You could not only see Anne’s perspective on being in this house with other people in such close quarters, but also this really interesting frame that the playwrights put in the show of what Anne imagines herself to be,” he said.

About one-fifth of the play’s dialogue comes directly from Frank’s diary, noted Blaemire, who also is an actor, currently appearing in the national touring production of “Falsettos.” Comparing “Anne” to “The Diary of Anne Frank” Blaemire said, “It’s more of a fever dream. It’s not a three-floor, ultra-naturalistic portrayal of these characters. They’re allegories. It’s very ethereal; there are no walls. Hopefully, the artifice of that allows us to feel closer to it.”

The production features an ethnically diverse cast that includes Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, an African-American and an actor of Swiss-Japanese heritage, underscoring that “it’s about us, all of us,” Blaemire said.

In her first professional role, Persian Jew Ava Lalezarzadeh, a third-year theater major at UCLA, plays Anne. “It’s not so much pressure as an obligation and a responsibility to do right by her,” Lalezarzadeh said. “She’s been glorified and mythologized and I really want to make her more human and bring her back down to earth. Yes, she’s a pinnacle figure of the Holocaust, but she’s also a girl growing into womanhood during this time of war.”

“[Anne’s] been glorified and mythologized and I really want to make her more human and bring her back down to earth. Yes, she’s a pinnacle figure of the Holocaust, but she’s also a girl growing into womanhood during 

this time of war.” — Ava Lalezarzadeh

The daughter of a doctor and a psychologist who escaped Iran as teenagers in the 1980s, Lalezarzadeh finds a parallel in Frank’s Ashkenazic experience. “I see so much of my parents in this story that it feels very close to me,” she said. “Being Persian and Jewish is very much part of my identity and my culture. I was bat mitzvah and we do the High Holy Days, but it’s not as much religious observance as it is tradition and sticking to our roots and holding onto our values, especially because my family was persecuted for being Jewish in Iran.”

Rob Brownstein plays Otto Frank, Anne’s father. “For the longest time, I didn’t think about my Judaism that much,” he said. “I’m not religious. We did the holidays and this and that, but I’ve always felt a strong Jewish identity. And because of what’s happening in the world and our country, the rise in anti-Semitism and bigotry, it’s important to take a stand.”

Of mainly Russian heritage, Brownstein’s grandparents were leftists, artists and intellectuals. He was born in Saigon, Vietnam, where his father worked in agricultural training for the U.S. government, and his mother taught English. He majored in theater at Queens College in New York and has worked steadily on stage, film and television.

Brownstein’s acting includes roles in “Argo,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” and most recently, “Velvet Buzzsaw,” “St. Judy” and “Star Trek: Discovery,” in which he played a Talosian alien. Also an acting teacher and private coach, he’ll next appear in the horror movie “Hummingbird,” and in the comedy “Oh Boy!” as a villainous lawyer.

“Anne” also hit home with director Eve Brandstein, whose parents are Holocaust survivors. “Anne Frank spoke to my soul with the deep ideas she was writing,” Brandstein said. “I identified with these great thoughts that she had, the wisdoms that she spoke.”

Brandstein related the story of how her parents, their young son and daughter, and her maternal grandmother were sent from their Jewish community in the Carpathian Mountains to a ghetto, then taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There, a Jewish prisoner advised her father to give the children to his mother-in-law if he wanted to save his wife. He did, and the son, daughter and mother-in-law went to the gas chambers.

“My father saved my mother’s life, but he has lived with the guilt his whole life,” Brandstein said. Born in Czechoslovakia after the war, she was an only child, “but I lived in a household with ghosts.” She was raised in an Orthodox, kosher home, and characterizes her connection to Judaism as “stronger than ever” today. She has been involved with many Jewish-themed productions.

Acting in a production of “The Dybbuk” in college, Brandstein realized what she really wanted to do was direct. She has done a lot of work for the Jewish Women’s Theatre, directed Rain Pryor’s “Fried Chicken & Latkes,” and most recently directed “Miss America’s Ugly Daughter: Bess Myerson and Me.” She and “Anne” producer Suzi Dietz will reopen that show at the Edgemar Center for the Arts on June 14, and subsequently take it to New York. The two women and Blaemire are developing a stage version of “The Rescuers,” about non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

“I feel I was born to direct this play,” she said. “I feel like I’m honoring my parents and my sister and brother with this, and all those other souls.” She believes Frank’s story has endured so long and continues to resonate because it’s eternally universal, relevant and familiar. “We live our lives with our dreams and hopes, and then the world comes in on us,” she said.

Aylam Orian, who plays Mr. Van Pels, feels the same way. “I am very connected to the Holocaust. Nearly everyone on my father’s side was killed,” he said. “At 3 years old, my father escaped from Poland to Palestine with his parents, and everyone who stayed behind died. My mother’s side is from Romania and Ukraine. Some died, but a few more people went to Palestine. My mom was born in Israel and grew up on a kibbutz.”

Although Orian was born in Cleveland, where his parents were working for the Jewish Agency in the U.S., he grew up in Israel, served in the army in Intelligence, then went to film school at Tel Aviv University to become a director. He came to realize he liked acting more, and trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York.

He moved to Los Angeles six years ago and since then, has worked in theater and television. He’ll next play a Polish-Jewish lawyer for the Mafia in “The Informer” in August, and a German racing commentator in November’s “Ford v. Ferrari” with Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

His facility with languages — he speaks English, Hebrew, Arabic, Polish and German — has served him well, landing roles including a German agent in “Shooter” and the Nazi villain in Syfy’s “Stargate Origins.” “I’m really happy to have the chance to tell the story of one of the victims instead of the victimizers, especially in this story,” Orian said of “Anne.”

He read “The Diary” as a child, but a visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam made a greater impression. So did a chance discovery of the Anne Frank Zentrum (Center) when he was lost in Berlin. 

Although he does not consider himself religious, Orian believes Judaism “has a lot of beautiful things to offer. But I’m not interested in the ritualistic part of it,” he said. “For me, being religious is living the life that the songs and prayers are trying to get you towards: Love your neighbor as yourself. Be kind.” As a “big animal rights person,” he includes animals in that. “I extend my compassion to all living beings.”

He finds troubling parallels between the current state of the world and the one so tragically portrayed in “Anne.” “With the right being so strong, I don’t preclude the possibility of a police state,” he said.

“History repeats itself, and we have to remind ourselves that we can’t be apathetic,” Lalezarzadeh added. “We cannot tolerate injustice and inequality and anti-Semitism. We have an obligation to take care of each other.”

“Anne” begins previews June 5, with performances June 16- Aug. 5 at the Museum of Tolerance.