A Story of an Obsession

By Geary Danihy

When Anne Frank’s diary was published, first in Germany in 1947 and then in the United States in 1952, the young Jewish girl who died of typhus in 1945 while imprisoned in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp became at once a symbol, a commodity and, for author Meyer Levin, an obsession. It is this obsession that “Compulsion,” a play by Rinne Groff that recently premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre, focuses on, and the result is a disturbing, often riveting piece of theater that eventually succumbs to the same confusion that bedeviled Levin: an inability to fully grasp the reality of Anne Frank.

The play opens with Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin) in the offices of Doubleday and Company, the diary’s American publisher. He is meeting with a newly hired editor, Miss Mermin (Hannah Cabell, who also plays Silver’s wife) and Mr. Thomas (one of three WASPs played by Stephen Barker Turner) in an attempt to establish his “rights” with regards to the diary and the possibility of his writing a stage version of Anne Frank’s work.

Silver’s obsession with the diary, and the young girl who wrote it, soon becomes apparent. This obsession’s main focus is initially a fear that the “Jewish-ness” of the material Anne left behind will be ameliorated or glossed over in the hands of someone – specifically Lillian Hellman –  who cares more for box office receipts than the truth. Mermin and Thomas placate Silver’s demands by arranging for him to write a review of the diary for “The New York Times Book Review.” Initially satisfied, Silver begins to see conspiracies all about him – WASP conspiracies, Fascist conspiracies, Communist conspiracies – as he attempts to get the play he has written produced.

As Silver becomes increasingly irrational, much to the consternation of his French wife, his confused relationship with Anne becomes central to the play. Is she the gravy train he will ride to ultimate success or a cryptic commentator on the social and literary scene circa 1950? Is she a Jewish saint or a needful spirit searching for surcease and solace? Is she a prepossessing author, the “Teller” Silver believes is the only one capable of capturing the immensity of the Holocaust, or the unattainable virgin of his erotic fantasies, a ghost that haunts his bedroom, a rival with whom his wife cannot compete?

Anne makes her appearance early in the play in the form of a puppet, deftly manipulated by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright. Groff’s decision to use a puppet rather than a live actress is a wise one, for it allows the audience, whose members assuredly have their own “visions” of Anne Frank, to project those multiple visions onto the puppet. The many visible strings that are used to manipulate the puppet also symbolize, if you will, how over the years the Anne Frank persona has been manipulated to serve whatever ends were desired by those “pulling the strings.”

The actors, separately and together, are eminently capable of combustion, and they approach flash-point several times, but there is, in the end, nowhere for them to go, for Groff has shied away from drawing conclusions and forcing her characters to face them. She comes closest with Silver, but the play’s denouement is so weak, especially with regards to Silver’s relationship with Anne, that the audience on opening night was unaware the play had ended. The curtains closed for the final time and there was silence…extended silence. That should tell the playwright that, in the end, she hasn’t given the audience what it wants, and what it wants is resolution, if not in realistic terms (that may not be possible), at least in dramatic terms.

Patinkin is superb as the multi-obsessed writer, and Turner carries off his WASP roles, as well as that of a Jewish producer in war-torn Israel, with a great deal of aplomb, and enough can’t be said of Cabell’s handling of her dual roles of Jewish girl on the publishing make and French wife to a frustrated Jewish author. The various parts of this “whole” are quite satisfying, so why does one come away from “Compulsion” feeling less than fulfilled?

It’s Anne, or as Groff refers to her in her script, “Miss Frank.” As difficult as it might be to grasp who Anne Frank really was, in “Compulsion” she ends up being little more than a dramatic foil for Silver and, to a lesser extent, his wife. This might have been satisfactory if Groff had offered the audience some sort of closure to Silver’s obsessions, but there is none.
The final scenes offer a surreal, out-of-body-Silver who, with Mermin’s acceptance, gains entrance to the literary soirees Groff suggests he always wanted to attend (Did he?). This is immediately followed by a heavenly meeting between author and subject -- his obsession -- that is rife with possibilities: reality versus illusion; need versus want; icon versus flesh-and-blood human. Alas, none of this is pursued or brought to fruition. What has Anne to say about all that has gone on since her untimely death? What is her take on Silver’s monomaniacal focus on her and how society has dealt with the Holocaust? The audience never learns the answers. Groff backs away from these questions and in the process leaves her audience up in the air.

“Compulsion” runs through Sunday, Feb, 28. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org.

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