Compelling Compulsion at Yale Rep

By Amy J. Barry

Don’t let the short title or small cast deceive you. Compulsion at Yale Rep is a complicated play addressing so many themes; it would take up this whole review just to explain all the nuances of the central plot and various subplots.
But what this reviewer came away with from this ambitious and inventive production about a man obsessed with bringing the story of Anne Frank to the American stage, is a sense of awe and an emotional, visceral response that in many ways overrides the need for a lot of intellectual analysis.
Playwright Rinne Groff’s script, smoothly sculpted by the delft directorial hand of Oskar Eustis, creates visual and auditory impressions that one cannot shake—just like its main character Sid Silver, based on real-life novelist/journalist Meyer Levin, can’t shake his single-minded mission to honor and keep alive the deeply personal diary of the teenager who perished of typhus just two weeks before the concentration camps were liberated at the end of World War II.
The ingenious use of puppets to portray Anne Frank and her family—beautifully orchestrated by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley, and Eric Wright—adds a rich, mystical/spiritual quality to the performance and creates the perfect venue for Groff to express the fictionalized aspects of the script.
The play is, in a sense, the behind-the-scenes story of the famous book that came to symbolize the Holocaust after it was first published in the U.S. in 1952, and remains a primary text for teaching American school children about not only the horrors of Nazi Germany but the will of the human spirit.
Mandy Patinkin’s riveting performance as Sid Silver is the lynch pin of the production. Patinkin lives and breathes his tragic character—his rages, his passion, his vulnerability, and at times, endearing nature.
Its hard to take one’s eyes off Patinkin as the tortured writer, strutting and fuming and driving everyone around him crazy as he attempts to navigate the politics of the publishing world, becoming embroiled in three decades of legal battles, asserting that Hollywood screenwriters chosen over him to write the 1955 Broadway play had watered down the diary’s meaning and its “Jewishness” to appeal to American audiences.
Is Sid Silver a paranoid, delusional, conspiracy theorist? Is he using Anne Frank as a means to fame and fortune? (hence another meaning to depicting her as a puppet) or is he just steadfastly true to his values and beliefs, a lone voice for truth and justice in a world full of corruption and underlying anti-Semitism?
Hannah Cabell is fabulous playing both of the women at the center of Silver’s life. She seamlessly switches character and accent from Miss Mermin, an ambitious young literary agent whom Silver asserts is trying to “pass” in the WASP-y publishing world…to his smart and lovely French wife, desperately trying to hold on to a marriage that’s dangerously close to collapsing under the overwhelming weight of her husband’s obsession with another woman—Anne Frank.
Stephen Barker Turner is equally adept playing four roles, although it gets a bit confusing in that three of them are so similar—publishing world “suits”—one would have sufficed. In the second act, Turner plays a more distinctive role as an Israeli artistic director who’s been snookered by Silver to produce the play overseas under false pretenses.
We could have hoped for a less open-ended ending—a lot about the characters and their relationships is left unresolved.
But despite the ambiguity of the final scene, even as I write this, I’m still haunted by the wise and soothing young voice of Anne Frank played by a small puppet with a pale papier-mâché face, repeating like a mantra, while floating around the stage, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
Its up to us to make those words ring true and to continue—as this talented creative team has done through art—to keep alive Anne Frank’s memory and the hard lessons of history she represents.
Performances of Compulsion continue at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, through Feb. 28. Tickets are available online at <> or by phone at 203-432-1234.
This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online, Feb. 17-18, 2010.

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