The Ridgelea Reports on Theatre "Compulsion" at Yale Rep
By Tom Nissley
"Compulsion," a new play by Rinne Groff, playing in its world premiere at Yale Rep this month, is a beautifully intricate production that seems to be about Meyer Levin and his own push to be the most advanced promoter of the touching "Diary of Anne Frank." Levin, who is not mentioned in the play - (for why? The play is about him. The character on stage, played by Mandy Patinkin, is named Mr. Silver). - was given a copy of "The Diary of Anne Frank" when it was newly translated into French, and became emotionally hooked on the writing. He took on himself, and his personal ego, the responsibility of getting it published in English, and, he hoped, transferring it to the stage. Whether because he was too pushy, or too emotional, or too sure he had been promised the rights to this responsibility, he became disappointed and then involved in lawsuits with other writers who did transform the book into a play.
Until I saw "Compulsion" I knew very little about Levin. Now I think of him as a man with a mission that bordered on mania. He was obsessive and tightly wound, likely to fly into hysterical pyrotechnics in the middle of a discussion - always remembering that he was Jewish, always sensitive to ways of being discounted, often arranging to be disliked. At one point his wife threatened to leave him if he did not give up the other woman: she meant Anne Frank. He promised to do so, but in secret continued to fantasize that Anne was his alone.
Levin in real life was a puppeteer for a while, and Groff has written a portion of the script to be managed by marionettes on a stage within a stage. The flashbacks to the Amsterdam loft take place there. Quick scene changes are managed by putting new backgrounds onto the small stage. As Mr. Silver moves closer to psychosis, he imagines that Anne has continued to grow older in the spirit world, and that she is present with him to chat and to comfort him. The puppeteers manage the miniature Anne so deftly that the scenes are quite remarkable.
On the whole, however, the play is not. It is confusing and seems to point to many facets without focus. I was uncomfortable with the play while admiring and enjoying the production. I looked for meaning in Mr. Silver’s fanatical Jewishness. Then I looked for meaning in the connection with Anne Frank, and in Silver’s deep antagonism and fear of the anti-Semitism all around him, which was a reality. It was hard to pin down. I liked the speed with which Hanna Cabell and Stephen Barker Turner switched costumes and dialects to represent the world around Silver - his wife, his literary agents, a friend in Israel - so cleverly. And I would cheerfully see it again to watch the well-managed puppet bits.
"Compulsion" was commissioned by Berkeley Repertoire Theatre and the Public Theater. It is directed by Oskar Eustis, who is the Artistic Director of the Public Theater. The collaboration of these two significant theaters with Yale Rep ensures that "Compulsion" will be seen by a large audience, and it may easily develop a different dimension as it matures. If you go to see a splendid display by Patinkin and his co-stars, or for the puppets, or for an edge experience, you’re likely to experience the compulsion referred to in the title, but may not figure out about what.
Early in the play or reading program notes you will get an idea that this is a play about Anne Frank. It isn’t. It’s a play about Meyer Levin, pretty much based on material in "An Obsession with Anne Frank; Meyer Levin and the Diary," by Lawrence Graver, or Ralph Melnick’s "The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank: Meyer Levin, Lillian Hellman, and the Staging of the Diary." Five minutes with the latter book will shed bright light on the story behind the story. Groff’s mixture of metaphors in "Compulsion" is both clever and also a distraction. Don’t be distracted, but watch the process of a writer - who thought in terms of puppets - going mad, and try to enjoy it!
"Compulsion" plays thru February 28 in New Haven. Tickets and schedules are found at www.yalerep.org.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre February 10, 2010