nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 10, 2011
Sid Silver, the character at the center of Rinne Groff’s Compulsion, is a man in the grip of an unstoppable obsession, and it makes him impossibly frustrating—both to the other characters in the play with him and, often, to the audience. He begins with the laudable motive to share The Diary of Anne Frank with the world, to adapt it for the stage and share Anne’s spirit and words with a wider audience than might pick up the book, and with strong, if potentially controversial, opinions about how to do so—how best to represent both Anne’s character and the context of her Jewish identity. But he rapidly descends into an ugly place, a place where he is the victim of machinations and persecutions equivalent to, even representative of, the Holocaust. At his most hyperbolic—at his most genuinely insane—he calls the tribulations he suffers in not getting his play produced equal to Anne Frank’s experiences, and he compares Otto Frank, Anne’s father, to a Nazi for wanting to point up a universalist rather than specifically Jewish message in Anne’s emotional journey.
Not surprisingly, Silver alienates everyone around him—the diary’s publishers, a string of Broadway producers, his own lawyer—with his paranoid thinking, to the point where every encounter and discussion he might have about the work turns out so disastrously that it feeds right back into his own persecution complexes. Accepting defeat and finally signing away the rights to the diary, Silver and his family emigrate to Israel for a fresh start, only to find the seeds of his obsession—with Anne and with the meaning of Jewish identity and culture in a post-World-War-II world—growing in newly fertile ground.
And it’s not always easy to tell precisely where his sane but unlikable streak of self-righteousness crosses the line into genuine madness, though many of his actions and words become so disconnected from reality that it’s obvious that the line has been crossed. He’s so convinced of the moral superiority of his cause and of his unique ability to represent the Anne Frank story, so short-sighted and high-handed, that it’s often difficult to feel for him, and difficult to even think about the issues he raises in a clear-sighted way. (Mandy Patinkin, an actor who can tend toward the overbearing and the grandiose, is perfectly cast here, oversized but completely sincere in both his passionate convictions and his vicious accusations.) The pathos comes from the audience becoming exquisitely aware that no matter what we may feel about Silver’s project, he’s destroying himself and any possibility of completing it—and from Silver’s growing understanding that he is in fact mad, but to give up the madness is to give up his life’s work.
Silver is closely based on the mid-twentieth-century American writer Meyer Levin, who was one of the first Americans to discover The Diary of Anne Frank. Given the French edition by his (French) wife in the early 1950s, Levin became a tireless crusader for the diary’s American publication: he wrote its review in The New York Times; he struck up a correspondence with Anne’s father, Otto Frank, the only member of the Frank family to survive the war; and—most significantly—he received encouragement and authorization from Otto Frank to adapt the diary for the American stage. But Levin’s adaptation never made it to Broadway—his version was rejected by the producers in favor of an alternate version by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, screenwriters of The Thin Man, Easter Parade, It’s a Wonderful Life, and other classic American movies. And Levin was obsessed with this loss for the rest of his life.
What Groff does, intriguingly, to give an emotional dimension to Silver’s passion and compassion for Anne Frank is to draw from another curious fact about Levin’s life: he ran a Chicago marionette theatre. And so the spirit—or ghost—of Anne becomes an almost-life-size marionette, voiced at different times by different members of human cast: an embodied but still abstract presence, always both herself and a blank space on which others project their own emotions and needs. (The puppetry is beautifully done—designed by Matt Acheson and performed by Emily Decola, Daniel Fay, Eric Wright. Anne’s girlish physical presence, her simultaneous gravitas and levity, is quite uncanny.) One scene in particular, where Silver’s long-suffering wife has her own dreamlike encounter with Anne in the couple’s bedroom, is the most moving in the play—and, not coincidentally, also one of the simplest.
Because the play does often feel overwrought, or overdone. Silver, to be sure, is an overwrought character, and a lot of the other figures in the play are, it seems, primarily seen through his eyes—but even so, I felt like Groff and director Oskar Eustis could at times have pared back stylistically. There are also a few gestures toward a kind of self-consciousness about the play-world that don’t really make sense without being further woven into the fabric of the piece.
Some of the production elements, too, feel over-thought-out and underused. The set (by Eugene Lee) and the projections (by Jeff Sugg) are both beautifully executed but seem somehow much more complex and elaborate than necessary to serve the play. The acting—not so much by Patinkin but by the other two cast members, Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian, who each play a number of parts—can feel overly stylized; I really liked each of them in certain of their roles (Cabell as Silver’s wife, Osian as an Israeli director who takes on Silver’s play) significantly more than others (Cabell as a book editor, Osian as a series of publishing executives, lawyers, and agents).
Yet while I sometimes found the piece—and Sid Silver—frustrating, even off-putting, I never stopped wanting to know how Silver’s journey would play out. As a portrait of the costs of madness, Compulsion succeeds. I’m less certain that the play successfully grapples with the details—Anne Frank’s legacy, or Meyer Levin/Sid Silver’s; what it meant to be a Jewish artist in the twentieth century—but in its uncomfortable yet compelling depiction of a crazy obsession, the specific details of the madness may not, finally, be the important thing.