The presentation, directed with understanding and specificity by Oskar Eustis (artistic director at The Public), features the versatile Mandy Patinkin as Mr. Silver; Hannah Cabell as Miss Merman and Mrs. Silver; and Stephen Barker Turner as Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris, Mrs. Ferris, and Mr. Matzliach. Puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley, and Eric Wright play vital roles as they manipulate marionettes; Matt Acheson has designed the puppets and he facilitates that aspect of the show.
Author Meyer Levin was obsessed and zealous in his effort to adapt Anne Frank's diary for live stage performance. Rinne Groff changes the name of the protagonist to Sid Silver and Patinkin plays the character at a driven, emotional pitch. Groff's script, which interfaces reality with imagination, follows Silver from New York to Israel and back during time periods from 1951-1981 as he pushes his play, convinced that his rendering, rather than the Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett version which opened and did well on Broadway, is the superior work.
During the course of two hours and fifteen minutes, we perceive an honest yet perhaps paranoid Silver, who insists that a Jewish writer be the one to bring The Diary to Broadway. Groff's quite full play includes much direct or implied commentary, including allusion to the Holocaust.
Silver's fairly tumultuous relationship with his French wife (the engaging Cabell) adds texture. Turner skillfully plays a few of the men Silver engages, both in New York and in Israel, to publish and/or present his version of The Diary. Both Cabell and Turner are impressive as they shift from one persona to the next.
Patinkin summons raw energy to play a self-centered man who is desperate and fervid to succeed with his project. The actor is unfailingly "on" for the entire performance. The puppeteers are gracefully adept as they move Anne from a table, somewhat downstage, to a marionette mini-performance space toward the rear, and so forth.
It might not be possible to fully comprehend and assimilate Compulsion during a single viewing. It is immediately enticing, at the outset, as a tiny voice emanates from the sitting puppet, Anne Frank: "That's the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart." Silver, soon thereafter, begins railing for himself and against much which vexes himand we are off. The ride ahead, not for every instant a smooth one, is exciting.
Compulsion is rich and oftentimes stirring. It is bold of Groff to take this on. Eustis, the three actors, and the puppeteers form quite an ensemble. Eugene Lee's scenic design is wisely minimal and precise. I watched, after intermission, as a middle-aged man, seated in the row just ahead of me, jumped off the end of his seat and punched his fast into the airduring mid-dialogue. That's the type of reaction Compulsion elicits.
Compulsion continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through February 28th. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol