She seems both alive and dead at the same time, a plucky, precocious girl whose life was tragically cut short at 15. How perfectly appropriate then, that Anne Frank is played by an amazingly life-like marionette in Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion,” a play about the Jewish writer Meyer Levin’s obsession with Anne Frank’s diary.
With Mandy Patinkin leading a fine three-person cast supplemented by a clutch of dancing puppets, “Compulsion,” now running at the Public Theater, would seem to have it made. How disappointing then, that it is only truly compelling when those puppets come on stage.
“Compulsion,” directed by Oskar Eustis, presents Patinkin in the role of Sid Silver, a character closely based on Levin, who believes himself to have a kind of ownership of Anne Frank’s diary after he discovers it in a small French edition, has it translated into English, and writes the front-page New York Times review that brings it to the attention of the world. When his stage adaptation is ultimately rejected by Anne’s father Otto and by the Broadway establishment, which wants to downplay the Jewish aspects of the story, Silver wages an obsessive, decades-long battle to overturn their decision.
Our individualistic society, which the late Christopher Lasch famously called the “culture of narcissism,” is perennially preoccupied with the theme of obsession. Think of recent films like “Black Swan” and “Casino Jack,” in which lust and greed, respectively, become what characters live for. What makes “Compulsion” unusually high brow is that the object of attraction is a literary one, and the story is mostly played out in the offices of publishers and lawyers.
Groff is a fine playwright who is at home with historical subjects, including previous plays about the invention of television (“The Ruby Sunrise”) and about the air traffic control strike of 1981 (“Jimmy Carter was a Democrat”). “Compulsion” is tautly and beautifully written, and the issues that it raises are timeless ones — the conflict between art and entertainment, the need for an ethnic group to insist on its particularity in the midst of an open society, and the responsibility that we owe to the past. But it suffers from having a central character who is incapable of change.
In his singing, Patinkin demonstrates an impressive vocal and emotional range, which enables him to move between brassy self-confidence and keening pathos. (Unfortunately, he does not sing at all in the play, with the exception of a few lines of “Mayn Shtetele Belz,” the Yiddish standard about the town of Belz.) But while he is as charismatic as ever, and certainly believable in the role of the enraged writer, he seems to be working just a little too hard, as he typically does in his concerts. It is disconcerting to watch such a perfectionist actor playing a character who is hamstrung by having too much at stake and not being able to take a step back from a situation that is swallowing him up.
And, ultimately, swallowing up the play. As Silver rails ceaselessly against what he calls the “assimilationist communists who reign over Broadway,” he pushes things too far. And then he goes even farther, accusing everyone, including Otto Frank, of being equivalent to the Nazis in their squelching of the diary to the stage. His devotion to the diary is so absolute — “I would lay down my life to save this book and what it represents to the Jewish people,” he announces at one point — that it would be touching if he were not so caught up in the throes of his delusion. But as Silver ultimately betrays everyone for the sake of his obsession, even the audience gets fed up.
This is a shame, given that the supporting cast is a treat to watch. Hannah Cabell is wonderful switching back and forth between playing a publishing house representative who is initially sympathetic to Silver’s cause, and playing Silver’s distraught French wife, who finds herself supplanted by a dead teenager in her husband’s affections. Matte Osian is also excellent, particularly when he leaves off playing various publishers and lawyers, all of whom seem the same (in a running gag, Silver keeps mixing them up with each other), and an Israeli director whom Silver finally convinces to stage the play in an amateur military production in Israel. This makes for one of the most memorable scenes in the play, in which the puppets act out a scene from the diary in Hebrew, as if Anne and her siblings had miraculously made it to Palestine.
Indeed, just as the play gets tedious, those ravishing puppets return. The play’s first moments, in which Silver is shown writing his play and the marionette of Anne Frank is sitting beside him, also furiously scribbling away with her arms waving and her head bobbing back and forth, are utterly captivating and would be so even without wonderful projected images of Amsterdam that are projected on the back wall.
The first act ends with Silver’s wife framed by the front door, as she stands out in the pouring rain threatening to leave him if he does not give up his hopeless quest; the second act begins with her replaced by the Anne Frank puppet, who dances into the house at Silver’s excited invitation. The erotic attraction of Anne for Silver is reinforced by a scene in the marital bed, in which the sinuous puppet insinuates itself between husband and wife, with Patinkin supplying the voice of Anne as Silver’s wife pleads with it to leave them in peace.
That heart-breaking puppet, and the Holocaust that it stands for, will leave no one in peace, least of all the audience. It becomes by far the most haunting aspect of this intriguing, valuable, intermittently moving, but insufficiently dramatic play.
“Compulsion” runs at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., through March 13. Performances are Tuesday-Friday evenings at 8 p.m., with weekend matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, $75, call the box office at (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.