by Rinne Groff
Directed by Oskar Eustis
Starring Mandy Patinkin
Papp/Public Theater

Reviewed by David Spencer

Here’s a twisted but of theatrical genealogy: The Diary of Anne Frank inspired Jewish American writer Meyer Levin to champion the book’s publication in the United States, and to write a play based on it, having come to a verbal agreement with Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, that he would be the authorized adapter. Not having a written agreement, Levin was manipulated aside, but doggedly pursued his right to be connected as a creative force to any dramatization of the property. (It wasn’t riches he sought—in fact, early on he turned away a settlement royalty that would have afforded him lifetime “fuck you” money—but what he saw as the purity of Anne’s Jewish voice, speaking for the plight of Jews, something that became significantly diluted as more powerful showbiz and publishing forces turned Otto’s head and quashed Levin’s influence.) This fever took Levin on a long, Byzantine and international path of seeking artistic validation and legal retribution. In the meantime, he wrote a novel and play based on the Leopold and Loeb murder case and trial, called Compulsion. When his Anne Frank quest finally ended with unsatisfying vindication, he wrote, first, a novel based on the events (The Fanatic), and when that failed to give him the closure he sought, wrote a straight-ahead nonfiction account called Obsession, which was one of his best-received books. It didn’t quell his restless spirit. In the end the quest consumed him, costing him his health, his marriage and his mental stability

               Now there’s a play by Rinne Groff called Compulsion about Levin’s obsession. It has nothing to do with Leopold and Loeb, nor particularly with compulsion (save as a subset of obsession, though Meyer doesn’t seem to have been obsessive-compulsive) but everything to do with self-destruction. And at that, self-destruction in show business. It’s a difficult enough play to watch if you’re a theatre practitioner and self-aware of your own pathological red-flag points; but if you’ve ever been the Odd Person out (yet the one true voice) in a collaborative clusterfuck tainting your work (and I don’t limit this scenario to show business), and/or watched a colleague—especially a brilliant one—destroy his or her career through being unable to harness volatile psychosis…well, then the play becomes profoundly discomfiting. At least it was for me. (Speaking of compulsion, I fought a strong impulse to call my shrink when it was over.) Levin’s story, as dramatized, isn’t just tragic; it’s a cautionary tale. But happily—happily?—well, let’s say, compensatorily, the discomfiture is of the riveting, nobly theatrical kind.

               The play is performed on a spare set, so there’s not much between you and the raw psyche of Levin—or as he is called here, Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin). (The names of all the speaking characters in Levin’s story have been changed, though the names of all historical characters and offstage references remain authentic. This would seem to be a convoluted homage to Levin’s novel Compulsion, in which Leopold & Loeb are Straus & Steiner, and Sid Silver is the reporter who assumes the narrator’s POV.) One male and one female actor (Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian) portray all the supporting roles And the images that haunt Silver—Anne Frank in particular—exist in the person of marionettes (voiced by the onstage cast, manipulated by Emily Decola, Daniel Fay and Eric Wright).

               While quick research indicates that Ms. Groff, the playwright, hews very close to the real story, there are questions to be examined about her interpretation of Levin’s odyssey, just as there are breaks between reality and what Levin’s perception of reality was. For one thing, the Sid Silver we meet is not quite so formidable a literary presence as Levin was in real life. Accomplished and accredited and well regarded, but the acknowledgement of this in the dialogue (of other character sspeaking of or to Silver) is a little too perfunctory (or too blandly functional) to convince; and in Silver’s own dialogue there’s the shadow of madness already on the verge of emergence. This may in part have to do with Mandy Patinkin’s performance, which is (per usual) charismatic and arresting and aboil with the actor’s own by-now famous behavioral excesses threatening to pop. (In some ways one could argue that Patinkin and Silver are perceptually almost inseparable.) And indeed, barring trauma, abuse or some other extreme victimization, few real-life people arrive at full-metal crazy as a response to bad fortune without first having much more subtly slipped a few screws. But Ms. Groff seems equally to be painting Sliver as not merely difficult, but scruffy, a touch shabby and emitting a sub-sonic yet perceptible hum of graspy desperation right from the start. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair of her; I am sure it’s not ideal for the drama: it keeps the legitimate socio-political issues with which Silver is concerned from seeming as important as they might be in the story’s context—until deep into Act Two, by which time it’s too late for the viewer to be empathetic. And speaking of Act Two, there’s a story turn I won’t spoil, but it involves another character “seeing” the Anne Frank puppet spirit, and said character learning hard, factual information from her, to which said character has had no prior exposure. It gives Silver’s private delusion an unearned omniscience (aside from granting it the ability to be shared) and it’s a jarring point of view shift. It’s not the play’s only one—but it’s the one that raises questions regarding causal logic. (The playwright also kicks off Act Two with Mrs. Silver filling the audience in on what’s “happened” to her husband between acts, a fourth-wall-breaking device that appears nowhere else .) Meant as a compliment, the pain, pathos and tragedy of Sid Silver would have been amply apparent without the author tacitly editorializing within the characterization—because she delivers so much else sharply.

               As sharp are the direction by Oskar Eustis and the performances of all mentioned above. About Mr. Patinkin, what can I say that the above doesn’t already imply?; and of the others, Matte Osian is highly entertaining and Hannah Cabell has the “vibe” that sometimes presages coming stardom (one can never predict, but I sure wouldn’t be surprised).

               Compulsion is one of those evenings that’s quite a ways from being “great,” yet indelible anyway, because it is at the very least extremely competent and extremely bold. However "soft" it may be at its philosophical center…

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