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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mandy Patinkin with the Anne Frank marionette.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Put aside, for the moment, the question of whether chasing something you truly believe in is ever worth ruining someone else's life. (For better or worse, the answer is often yes.) Instead ask yourself: Is pursuit of your deepest conviction worth ruining your own life? And if so, why? In her new play Compulsion, which just opened at The Public Theater, Rinne Groff and her chief subject have decreed that the answer to the former is yes—no big shock. But the latter, more profound, and certainly more theatrical question has essentially been left untouched.

As a result, the play's prevailing concern shifts from "What's the impact?" to "What's the point?", a small but significant difference that transforms Groff's potentially fascinating exposé, and Oskar Eustis's production of it, into a through-the-motions exercise that quenches only surface-level curiosity. For plays driven by plot rather than psychology, that might be sufficient. But Groff has aimed at a target so amorphous, so high, and so far that hitting it would require precision weaponry she doesn't deign to deploy.

We are, after all, talking about one of the greatest cases of concentrated, civilized madness in the 20th century, not least because it's intertwined with one of the greatest atrocities of the 20th century. In real history, Jewish author and playwright Meyer Levin discovered the diary of Anne Frank in Europe, accelerated its publishing in this country, and then ignited its popularity by reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review. Even more, however, he believed Frank's story needed to be seen live, and thus worked with Frank's father, Otto, and producer Cheryl Crawford to bring his own adaptation of the diary to Broadway.

Things may not sound that untoward yet, but history tells us that Levin was not successful: When The Diary of Anne Frank opened in 1955, it was in an adaptation by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. Levin believed that the diary wasn't about any family under any peril, but that it was a story specific to his people and crucial to understanding the millennia of suffering and neglect to which he felt Jews had been relegated. His efforts—in court, in print, on stages in other countries—to produce his original version of the play, defying legal injunctions and common sense galore, even at one point suing Otto Frank, all but cemented his reputation as a madman ideologue in sensible clothing.

Any fraction of this story could warrant a play of its own: the issue of whether Levin was right about the degree to which Hackett and Goodrich universalized Anne Frank's story; the irony of Levin's bulldozer attitude given that he also wrote a novel, play, and film called Compulsion about the Leopold and Loeb murder case; the juxtaposition of Levin's fighting for Jews who themselves were struggling to reintegrate to a world that had once seemingly left them for dead.

But powerful individual elements such as these become can diluted when combined, requiring the playwright and director to unite them with a strong concept, powerful performances, and a dedication to emotional (and preferably factual) truth. This is where Groff and Eustis stumble.

The first wrinkle may be either legal or artistic, but it is damaging. Groff unconvincingly calls her version of Levin "Sid Silver," suggesting a stronger digression from the facts than actually occurs. (The action closely mirrors that described in Lawrence Graver's 1997 chronicle, An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary.) Levin's story was no more an anonymous one than was Anne Frank's.

The second is that a Sid driven by blind rage—and he's agitated from the first moments of the first scene depicting his first meeting with the book publishers—comes across too monstrous a figure for us to care about, let alone sympathize with. Compressed into some two hours of playing time, Sid's actions come across as even more indefensible and unhinged than did the real Levin's across three decades. Eustis has given the show a sharply minimalist staging (the mildly cluttered workshop set is by Eugene Lee, the lights by Michael Chybowski, and some narrative-nudging projections are by Jeff Sugg), but should have better rounded Sid's frustrated journey.

Compounding this is the casting of Mandy Patinkin as Sid. He's demonstrated a flair for determination, whether as Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George or Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride, and even mania as a Jolson-style singer in The Wild Party. But his lack of inherent warmth makes it difficult for him to temper Sid's already fiery tendencies and convince us that he's something more than a crackpot. Sid's sole moments of reflective connection, reading reviews of a production of his version of the play and his imagined interactions with Anne, don't quite cut it. Nor do the supporting roles, which are decently played by Hannah Cabell (as Sid's French wife and longstanding editor) and Matte Osian (as a succession of interchangeable authority figures), but too lightly drawn to gain any dramatic traction.

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the original unanswered question: "Why?" To explore it, Groff has hitched onto Levin's other life as the impresario of a marionette theater to give Anne a voice and presence onstage. Designed with exquisite care by Matt Acheson, and operated with true soul by Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay, and Eric Wright, the Anne marionette delicately captures the heartbreaking innocence of a young life snuffed out, and provides oases of beauty in the life of ugliness that Sid creates for himself.

Yet Groff doesn't stop there. Anne torments Sid as much as she comforts him, visiting him in his sleep, threatening his marriage, and in the end becoming for him a potential outlet for unrealized emotional and sexual urges. Yet this personalization only further flattens Sid—and Levin—by suggesting their endlessly stated beliefs that Jews surviving extermination only to be marginalized by their rescuers were insufficient reason for this unique crusade. If one thing alone can dislodge one's perspective on existence, wouldn't this sort of majestic maltreatment be a prime candidate? The more it uses Anne to deflect from that idea, the more Compulsion looks like just another kind of historical whitewashing.

Through March 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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