In late 1999, just before the Y2K disaster, I made a terrible mistake.
On a shoestring trip to Europe, I drank some mushroom-laced tea and went to Amsterdam's Anne Frank Museum. My friends and I, who were all Jewish and living in New York at the time, made offensive jokes about how spacious the Franks' living space would seem in the Manhattan real estate market, about the river views, about how being stuck in an attic with lots of books and someone bringing you food every so often didn't sound so bad.
Needless to say, throughout our giggle-filled excursion, there were pangs of terrible guilt. Anne Frank's family, of course, was forced to go into hiding from the Nazis here when she was 13 and, after the family's hiding spot was discovered, they were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where she died of typhus.
In the days and years after that particular tourist outing, I've imagined that we were not the first stoned idiots to embarrass ourselves in the Anne Frank Museum, nor would we be the last. For better or worse, Amsterdam has become a mecca for people, notably obnoxious Americans, seeking legal and easy access to drugs-so much so that the mayor has proposed banning marijuana sales to non-citizens. This production of The Diary of Dan Franke from Yellow Sign Theatre-known for making the most of shock value, as in last year's production of Darkspell, which came with a warning that the first few rows might be splattered with fake blood-seems to confirm my assumption and to play with the stereotype of the stoned American in Amsterdam.
Dan Franke (Griffin Stanbro) is an American Jew who recently graduated from high school and who uses his savings for a summer trip to Amsterdam. When he stops in the Anne Frank Museum to pick up a postcard to send to his mom, he is briefly incapacitated and winds up locked inside the building-the very one where Frank hid for two years during the Holocaust-over the weekend.
The play opens with Anderson Wilcox (Mike Jancz), the former curator of the Anne Frank Museum, reading from The Diary of Dan Franke, a memoir he edited after it was found amid the ashes of the museum after it was burned to the ground. Wilcox, like most of the other characters, is a caricature, in his case, of the erudite, British-accented academic who harbors dark secrets. The production crudely but effectively jumps between Wilcox's reading and Franke's ordeal in the museum. As things get hazy in Franke's stoned imagination, the two streams of the play intersect, adversarially, as Franke discovers some of Wilcox's secrets.
I'm assuming that playwright and co-director Tyler Agatstein (with Craig Coletta), who also plays the rabbi at Franke's bar mitzvah, is Jewish, because I doubt a gentile would feel as comfortable poking fun not only at the legacy of Anne Frank but at stereotypes of the overbearing Jewish mother and the weak-willed Jewish father-both of whom have thick, nasal, New York accents despite the fact that the play explicitly says they're from Baltimore.
When Franke first realizes he's locked in, he goes down to the gift shop, where he finds things like an Anne Frank menorah, an Anne Frank survival kit, and an "I survived the Anne Frank Museum and all I got was this T-shirt" T-shirt. He swipes some Anne Frank macaroons and Anne Frank rolling papers and retires to the curator's office to get high. He is ultimately visited by the ghosts of both Anne Frank and Helen Keller, who, in his mind, also lived in the building. He writes about it all in a gift-shop journal, which he calls "journey," and finds a long-lost letter revealing a sexual relationship between Frank and one of the other people who hid in the house, Peter van Pels.
The play includes some impressive stagecraft for such a small theater. When Franke sees a sexual tryst happening in a coffee shop across the street, it is projected on the wall of the theater; when his father, in a dream, describes meeting his first wife, the action takes place at the actual bar at the back of the theater; and when Franke watches a spider spinning a web in the corner, acrobat Jessie Buccaro performs on a trapeze above the audience (during curtain calls, it's explained that she is absent because she had to go back to work at Club Charles next door).
Down the stretch, the play tries to transition to something a bit heavier and more meaningful than the single, basic joke of the premise, with Dan yearning to break free of the prescriptions of his destiny and forge his own path, but it never quite succeeds. Likewise, the mystery of how the museum burned is never quite solved, although Dan's remains were never discovered inside and the journal is found, pristine, amid the ashes, as if it was left after the fire destroyed the building.
Still, it's a fun production full of quips and sight gags for those not easily offended. Thankfully, no fake blood was splattered in this one.
The Diary of Dan Franke plays at the Yellow Sign Theatre through May 3.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun