"Compulsion/Obsession” would be a better and more apt title for Rinne Groff’s play about a writer who believes that he has, deserves, and has earned the right to bring Holocaust victim Anne Frank’s diary to the American public. In the play, the writer is Sid Silver, a doppelganger for Meyer Levin, who in real life was the first writer to champion the publication of the diary and the first to adapt it as a dramatic play. Not to be confused with “Compulsion,” Levin’s remarkable best-selling account of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case, the title is, however, intrinsically tied in to the almost paranoid efforts of Levin to be the motivating theatrical force behind the voice of Anne Frank.
Levin would ultimately lose his fight to be Anne Frank’s champion when the play’s producer, with the approval of Frank’s father, Otto, decided to go with a “less Jewish” adaptation by Frances Goodman and Albert Hackett, the version that would win the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Levin’s life was essentially ruined by his irrational pursuit and identification with the dairy. The play traces the disintegration of his life and also, sadly, his marriage.
“Compulsion,” a co-production among the Public Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theater, and Yale Repertory Theater (where it had its first production a little more than a year ago,) is as troubled a play as it is a view of a talented but deeply troubled writer with a seriously destructive bi-polar personality. That the role of Silver is played to the hilt and somewhat even beyond its own inherent excesses by Mandy Patinkin has to have been a conscious effort to match the specific talents of this player to the role. There is no question that Patinkin has dived into the darker recesses of Silver’s incentive. That he surfaces as a relentless man with an uncontrollable belligerence and an egomaniacal fervor works up to a point. But the point is reached over and over with diminishing returns.
There is no denying the theatrical wherewithal that bonds Patinkin to Silver, as we witness how this character methodically becomes the victim of his own demons. This is not to say that Silver didn’t feel or know that he was betrayed by Otto Frank. Under the direction of Oskar Eustis, there are scenes, however, mostly to do with Silver’s unbalanced and presumably undiagnosed emotional nature, that are painful to watch. While Patinkin’s vocal and dramatic artistry in such extraordinary shows as “The Secret Garden,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “The Wild Party” were well defined by his character’s neurotically overwrought behavior, there is no musical support in this play to justify his overreaching demonstration of Silver’s protracted, painfully integrated meltdown. It’s just all too much, too often, and too shrill.
Arrestingly and artistically enhanced with the interaction of puppets and people, the play, which takes place between 1951 and 1981, has only three actors, two of whom play multiple roles. Hannah Cabell is excellent in the roles of Miss Mermin, an up-and-coming account executive at Doubleday Publishers, and Mrs. Silver. Cabell, who was last seen on Broadway in the revival of “A Man for All Seasons,” must be lauded for being virtually unrecognizable as she shifts from the one character to the other. Initially stylishly blonde, she appears centered in a self-assured confidence and perfectly able to fulfill her duties as a conciliator in the testy and ultimately futile negotiations between Silver and the double deal-making publishers. Notwithstanding her affected French accent and brunette pixie hair cut, Cabell is frisky and charming as Silver’s devoted (to the breaking point) wife.
There is a tongue-in-cheek and very amusing aspect in the presentation of the supporting male characters. Matte Osian portrays various white-bread publishers, agents, and writers as if they had been pressed from the same cookie-cutter, even to the point of confusing Silver. But Osian is also quite invigorating as Mr. Matzilach, an enthusiastic Israeli theater producer who is led to believe that Silver has the rights (and the right) to produce his theatrical version of the diary.
Even as he translates and dramatizes Anne’s text, Silver is visited almost celestially by an Anne puppet as well as by other puppets (beautifully designed and crafted by Matt Acheson) representing members of the extended Frank family (and well controlled by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay, and Eric Wright). The puppet device is essentially incorporated with a touch of poignancy to suggest Silver’s other and presumably neglected career as an entrepreneurial master of a puppet theater in Chicago.
The play is most compelling during the period when Silver and his wife have relocated to Israel and where he ill-advisedly manipulates Mr. Matzliach into producing his version of the play. It is here that the critical and delicate relationship Silver has with his wife is most heartbreakingly revealed. However, the play has already grown a bit tiresome in the earlier scenes in which too much time is spent on legal minutiae, publishing, and copyrights before we get to the more grounding, if also futile, confrontations between Silver and his wife, as she attempts to persuade him give up his obsession.
If we are confounded by the almost numbing experience of Silver’s intensifying state of madness, we are more scarily intrigued by Groff’s fantastical inclusion of puppetry to serve as the schism between Silver and his wife and Silver and reality. It is particularly unsettling when the Anne puppet spirits herself into their bed and speaks directly to the suddenly awakened Mrs. Silver. When Mrs. Silver asks, “What are you doing here?” Anne replies, “I’ve always been here.”
Groff, whose well-reviewed play “The Ruby Sunrise” was produced by the Public Theater in 2005, has elected to tell this very unsettling and close to factual story in a very eerie light. Of course, without her compulsion to give Levin’s life a dramatic form, no light at all may have ever been cast upon it. The set design by Eugene Lee appears to be Silver’s puppet theater studio workshop (atmospherically lighted by Michael Chybowski). It has the necessary trappings to transport us unceremoniously to the New York publisher’s office and to the Silver’s home in Israel. **
“Compulsion,” through Sunday, March 13, Public Theater, 125 Lafayette Street, New York. $75. 212-967-7555.