• Review
By – August 1, 2022

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.

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