This is cozy," says George Hearn, settling next to Linda Lavin on a love seat in her dressing room at The Music Box Theatre, where the "new" Diary of Anne Frank is playing. "We're close onstage for two hours every performance, but moments like this are now rare."
Lavin and Hearn discuss a mystery he's reading and she's anxiously awaiting, then talk of another book they've read -- the Anne Frank diaries.
"I read them before going on," says Hearn, "and I'm smitten with Anne's mind. She was a child, but so extraordinary -- so candid, so funny, and her mind was first-rate. Who knows what she could've become as a writer? It's because of her little checkered books that we're here."
Both are impressed with Frank's depictions of everyday life in that Amsterdam attack where she, her family and friends were hidden from the Nazi onslaught.
"There's great detail in the text," notes Lavin, "about everyone's behavior. We strive to bring it out. [Director] James Lapine's commitment to and passion for this detail imbued us with doing no less than finding every possible moment of human life in this situation of living so close together -- and being as filled with fear, sadness and outrage as they were."
Neither prefers to discuss Wendy Kesselman's expansion of the Pulitzer Prize and 1956 Tony-winning The Diary of Anne Frank -- by the noted, late husband and wife playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett -- with never-before-released material from the diaries, except to say that it's complicated.
The expansion, says Hearn, who plays Otto Frank, "makes it more stark. The rewriting's helped avoid the softness of the easy preaching one might make of the situation." This adaptation enhances characters that had been neglected. "That's wonderful for us. It's an ensemble piece, and everyone has more function."
Lavin, who plays the Franks' friend Mrs. Van Daan, observes, "The set's a replication to the inch of the Amsterdam attic and adds to our experience because we realize we're walking through their space."
"Indeed," says Hearn, "with eight and ten people onstage, not to mention chairs, tables, beds and so many things to bump into, you get a keen sense of their claustrophobia."
Hearn observed how funny Anne is in her diaries. "Though they were stuck in that attic, it doesn't mean strong Jewish humor wasn't freely flowing! In the rehearsals, we laughed a lot. With the strain of the material, it helped." Adds Lavin, "They survived as long as they did because they were able to laugh -- not at the situation, not at life in general, but in the moment. They had senses of humor, some more so than others. The vitality of certain characters and the situation's volatility is a source for the humor that was their survival button."
"Finding the humor," continues Hearn, "helped us avoid that kind of theatrical sinking into self-indulgence."
Lavin has found humor in Mrs. Van Daan: "I swear she was in menopause!" She and Hearn break up laughing. "The number of times I take that handkerchief and wipe my face; I could sleep with a light blanket on the coldest night because I'm schvitzing. It's never spoken of; it's life."
Hearn feels an audience jolt when moments of real life are brought out. "They don't think about such things as Anne having her first period, having womanhood come on her. Then it sets in and they realize, 'Of course, life went on.' That's how we're doing it. We're a team, a real family, working on intuition. We hardly think of it as performance."
Lavin explains they're still finding new subtleties, which, observes Hearn, is the fun part of acting.
At play's end Hearn, as Otto Frank, informs the audience of the characters' fates. Recently, Lavin has "found a spot where I can listen to George instead of readying for the curtain call. The epilogue has always been enormously moving, but the way George has grown as Mr. Frank -- even from the skill he brought to begin with, I'm hearing it in a startlingly new way. It keeps me connected with the story. In a long run most actors go off to bad habits, even some estrangement of each other. But George's greatness as an actor has gotten stronger, and it's affecting us all."
"That's very dear, Linda," says a surprised Hearn as he kisses her.
There's no doubt, Hearn notes, "that we're connecting more. Even when the key scene's taking place over there, you hear, you react. It's life, and we're having a constant connection with our alter egos."
"Natalie [Portman, who plays Anne] and George have truly bonded," says Lavin. "She loves him, as she loves no one else. It's touching."
"She has a close relationship with her father," says Hearn, "and, since I'm her father, too, it's an extension of that."
The play, for the actors as well as audiences, is such a shattering experience, it must be hard to walk away when the curtain comes down.
"We have different opinions," explains Hearn, "but we're actors. It's what we do for a living. Still, it's hard not to carry it with us." Lavin adds, "In our hearts, George, how do we differ? I absolutely agree. That's why this play's working so well."
"When a play's working," says Hearn, "it's because a great hand guides you. Here, it's the writer's. The hand is Anne Frank. It's an incredible privilege to play these people. The play takes a lot from us but gives back even more."