“Compulsion” -- Good Intentions Gone Awry

--Irene Backalenick

“Compulsion,” now enjoying its “world premiere” at Yale Rep, offers the best of stories and the best of intentions—the diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank and the struggle of Meyer Levin to get his Anne Frank play recognized and performed. But good intentions do not necessarily translate into drama, and “Compulsion” is a case in point.

Certainly Meyer Levin’s historic connection to “The Diary of Anne Frank” is fascinating—and with dramatic potential. He had had a stake in the project from the beginning. He was responsible for bringing the diary to the attention of the American public. In his review for The New York Times, he turned the book, “The Diary of Anne Frank” (published in 1952 by Doubleday & Company), into a best-seller. And he had the blessing of Otto Frank (Anne’s father) for turning the book into a play.

As forces rallied against Levin, having his Anne Frank play staged became a “compulsion”—and not only for personal professional reasons. He believed it was of paramount importance to keep the Holocaust story and its moral message alive. It became a monumental struggle. 
   
Given such material, why doesn’t “Compulsion” work on stage? The play, alas, lacks a dramatic arc. It starts on a high note of hysteria, with Mandy Patinkin, as Mr. Silver (a stand-in for Levin) pulling out all the stops. From the first act on, he is an ill-used writer fighting, screaming, for his rights. Where can this play go? Certainly there is no sense of growing intensity. The long, complicated tale which spans Levin’s thirty-year battle merely offers a series of episodes.

A further difficulty is the fact that Meyer Levin once wrote a play about the Leopold-Loew murders which he called “Compulsion.” This is confusing for any theatergoer who has seen the earlier “Compulsion.”

Yet there are compensations. Oskar Eustis (who directs the piece and is The Public Theater’s Artistic Director) offers some beautiful moments, interweaving puppets with live performers (thanks to puppet-designer Matt Acheson and skillful puppeteers (Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley, and Eric Wright). This is an appropriate bow to Levin’s one-time involvement with a puppet theater in Chicago. And, more importantly, it creates a play-within-a-play—separating the Anne Frank scenes from Levin’s daily reality. And designer Eugene Lee’s sets work well for both kinds of scenes.

Live performances are generally competent, with Patinkin a most vulnerable, driven Meyer Levin. Hannah Cabell as his editor at Doubleday creates a character loaded with charm, but driven by ambiion. And Stephen Barker Turner, who plays all other roles, is brilliant as Levin’s Israeli theater director. His style, accent, movements are all right on target.

Yet “Compulsion” proves to be a disappointment. In attempting to cover history, biography, plot, character development, and moral message, has writer Groff simply taken on too much?

This review appears in the Connecticut Post, National Jewish Post & Opinion, 
and nytheaterscene.com and jewish-theatre.com.

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