IT WAS JOE Mantello who suggested that Stone produce a stage version of two holiday satires by the gay humorist and National Public Radio commentator David Sedaris, "Season's Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" and "The Santaland Diaries." The latter, an essay that Sedaris originally read on NPR, is a wickedly funny account of his experience working as an elf in Macy's seasonal Santaland display, including his attraction to some of the other elves. Stone, who also is gay, loved the idea, but Sedaris was initially uninterested. Mantello recalls, "David wouldn't give up, and eventually he wore him down." Stone says he persisted because, "I wanted to do something really cool and to work with the hippest people. No one made any money. It was just for fun."
Stone and partner Nederlander-Case spent 18 months competing for the rights to revise and produce a new play based on Anne Frank's diary. They spent hours brainstorming about how to sensitively handle the play, which had such emotional ramifications for so many people and yet needed to be updated based on recently restored material critical of Anne's mother and expressive of her sexual feelings that Anne's father had cut from earlier editions. They also wanted to think through the marketing of the play to the broadest possible audience. The esteemed director James Lapine, who collaborated with Stephen Sondheim as both librettist and director of Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, signed on, and playwright Wendy Kesselman, author of My Sister In This House, was hired to adapt the script.
Impressed by the young actress Natalie Portman ("She blew me away," Stone says of her performance in the film Beautiful Girls), Stone suggested to Lapine that he consider the Israeli-born, Long Island-bred 16-year-old film star for the part of Anne. "He brought Natalie into the mix. She did a reading, and I thought she was terrific," says Lapine. Portman was so moved by the diary, read at the recommendation of her father during breaks in filming The Professional, that she turned down a huge Hollywood opportunity, the role of Grace in Robert Redford's film ofThe Horse Whisperer, to appear as Anne. The great granddaughter of two Holocaust victims, Portman told The Boston Globe, "I want the audience to understand the story as a real story. This isn't something some playwright made up. This really happened, and it's important never to let it happen again."
But before the curtain rose on Stone's production, the adaptation of the diary was engulfed in controversy. Writer Cynthia Ozick filled 10 pages in The New Yorker with an examination of the previous adaptations of the diary -- a Pulitzer Prize-winning play and an Oscar-nominated movie in which uplifting lines had been emphasized and references to Jewishness had been downplayed. Anne Frank's diary had been, Ozick contended, "bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied. Among the falsifiers have been dramatists and directors, translators and litigators, Anne Frank's own father, and even -- or especially -- the public, both readers and theatregoers, all over the world. A deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth or anti-truth."
Ozick argued that because it does not chronicle the terrible end of Anne's life and that of her companions, "its incompleteness has left it open to false characterizations" of being "a song to life" or "a poignant delight in the infinite human spirit," which she considered a mockery. Her conclusion to the article was stunning and she knew it. Ozick wrote: "It may be shocking to think this (I am shocked as I think it) but one can imagine a still more salvational outcome: Anne Frank's diary burned, vanished, lost -- saved from a world that made of it all things, some of them true, while floating lightly over the heavier truth of named and inhabited evil."
Stone never reacted publicly to the piece, but it seared him, keeping him up for many sleepless nights. "I thought it was vicious because she wrote it without ever having seen [our version of] the play," he says. "In retrospect, it was the best thing that could have happened."
The publicity focused attention on the play just before the reviews came out, and they, for the most part, were positive. Richard Zoglin wrote in Time, for instance, that the new adaptation "sometimes reaches poetry."
Stone is hopeful that Diary, which cost $1.6 million to mount plus weekly expenses, will run until the end of this year, generating $15 million and an attendance of 350,000, terrific numbers for a Broadway production.
Currently Stone is "juggling a bunch of potential projects and seeing what happens." Among them are two revivals, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Witness for the Prosecution. Samuel L. Jackson has tentatively agreed to take on the role of Randle P. McMurphy, famously portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the film version. Several well-known female film stars are considering the role of McMurphy's nemesis, the cruel Nurse Ratched. Joe Mantello will direct.
Still among the youngest producers working on Broadway, Stone is praised for being "passionate about making great theater," says Joel Grey. "He has a sense of history and wants to be part of it."
The standout moment in Stone's career to date, he says, came when he had the opportunity to be included in a meeting with Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, the collaborators who wrote West Side Story. "They were trashing it," Stone remembers, "saying they were only young kids when they wrote it, and how much better it would be if they could write it now. I loved that play and said, 'You guys are kidding, right?' But at that moment, listening to them criticize their own production, I felt like I'd made it."
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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 6/1/98