Cabell, Patinkin and puppet in Compulsion (photo by Joan Marcus)
Written by Rinne Groff
Directed by Oskar Eustis
Starring Hannah Cabell, Matte Osian, Mandy Patinkin
Performances through March 13, 2011
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Compulsion, Rinne Groff’s problematic take on The Diary of Anne Frank, tells the story of Sid Silver, a writer who befriended Anne’s father, Otto Frank, thinking himself the lone person able to shepherd Anne’s diary into a bestseller and to live on as a successful play. Though its protagonist is self-absorbed and self-loathing in equal measure, Compulsion’s strange brew of sentimentality and sanctimoniousness is its undoing.
The play begins with Silver musing at his desk as a marionette portraying Anne sits next to him writing in her dairy: we hear her famous lines about people being basically good at heart. Periodically, marionettes appear, mainly Anne, who sometimes appears to Silver or his bemused French wife (the latter in a bizarre, even creepy, scene in their bed), sometimes acting out scenes from her diary. Though these puppets are brilliantly realized, they remain gimmicky, as if Groff wanted something unique to differentiate her historical melodrama.
It doesn’t matter, ultimately, because what hurts Compulsion most is its repetitiveness. The obsessive Silver (a thinly fictionalized version of Meyer Levin) is outraged at the slightest provocation, which he perceives as institutional and conspiratorial anti-Semitism. Each confrontation, between Silver and his wife or any of the publishers he’s dealing with, is a variation on this well-worn theme, and Groff doesn’t vary things enough to avoid an increasingly wearisome 2-1/2 hours while Silver’s combination of paranoia and egomania gets the better of him.
Though a strong onstage presence, Patinkin has a penchant for pouring so much into his lines that they sound like they’re always being shouted through a megaphone. Matte Osian nicely handles four flimsy roles (three New York publishers, one Israeli stage director) while Hannah Cabell is the show’s ace in the hole. This disarmingly natural actress plays a literary agent and Silver’s put-upon wife, adroitly handling the play’s mushiest parts, like reciting Anne’s dialogue in a breathy voice.
Oskar Eustis stages Compulsion with flair, the clever projections and amazing puppetry vying for prominence with his talented trio. It’s just unfortunate that Groff’s script lacks the heft its formidable subject demands.