It’s 1982, and a group of theater kids in a high school outside Chicago are auditioning for a play based on Anne Frank’s diary. That audition, which opens Cyclorama, sets in motion a drama that unfolds offstage and follows the kids well into adulthood.
It begins when Declan Spengler auditions for the role of Peter Van Daan because his girlfriend, Carrie Hollinger, is likely to get cast as Anne, and he can’t stand the idea of anyone else playing opposite her. But the play’s director, Ty Densmore, unexpectedly casts another student instead. Densmore tells Declan that he can’t create romantic tension between Anne and Peter if the actors are already involved with each other. But the real reason is far more sinister.
Rumors have swirled around Densmore for years, but no one involved has ever talked. Finally, when two students set out on a mission to expose him at a party, their plan changes the course of several lives.
Adam Langer’s Cyclorama is a novel in two acts. The first follows the students’ teenage years, and the second takes place when they’re well into middle age, still grappling with the effects of that night.
The novel occasionally draws comparisons between the lives of the characters and those of Anne and the families in the Annex. On opening night, for example, Fiona, who plays Mrs. Van Daan, panics when she sees in the audience her actual boyfriend, the boy she was pretending to date to please his parents (who are also present), and her married ex-lover. Looking out into the audience, she thinks, “Everyone was so unsuspecting. Like dear old London before the Blitz. Like the Franks and Van Daan’s before the knock on the Annex door.” And later, when Fiona meets up with her ex, the narrator traces her thoughts: “Was it awful to think that the freest she had felt all night was onstage awaiting the Nazis? Probably.”
Connections such as these aren’t always convincing, and it’s tempting to wonder why Anne Frank’s story is the one that frames these characters’ own tales. The answer comes in Act II of the novel, when the story takes on political overtones. It’s 2016, and a new production of Anne Frank is being staged, one that aims “to let the audience and the actors see the Anne in themselves, not the potential Nazi in everyone else … Anne Franks sleeping under Mylar blankets at the border; Anne Franks drinking poisoned water in Flint, Michigan; Anne Franks hiding from drone strikes or dying of hunger or hiking their lives to board rickety, overcrowded boats heading for the West … ”
Much depends on the reader’s willingness to accept these analogies: that Anne Frank’s life in the Annex is as apt a comparison to a teenager’s emotional confinement as it is to the horrendous treatment of immigrants under the former president. The nuance of that argument is worth more exploration than it gets in the novel. But the author has created a rich set of characters who illustrate the ambiguity of high school and the haunting ways in which events from that time linger.
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.