Review: Compulsion at the Public Theater



Photo Source: New York Times

A long time fan of Mandy Patinkin, I was very excited to hear about his latest play, “Compulsion”, which is part of my membership at the Public Theater.  I knew very little about it other than that it involved Anne Frank, the Holocaust, Israel and puppets, so naturally I was very curious.

Upon entrance to the theater, we came face to face with a group of puppets soaring over the set. At first glace, they would appear to be central characters of this play as they are the cast of the Anne Frank story – all the families that were in hiding with her during World War II.   However, they rise to the ceiling at the play’s start and the only puppets to reappear during the show are Anne Frank, a major character in the play, and Peter Van Daan, her companion while in hiding.  The puppets are masterfully orchestrated (by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay and Eric Wright) and add an important contribution to the play’s story.

Our first question after seeing this play was: is this a true story?  There is so much history intertwined into the story that one would think the events were real.  However, it says in the program that it is a “work of fiction based on one chapter in the life of a fantastic writer named Meyer Levin.”  Playwright Rinne Groff took a true story of a man with an obsession and created a story about another man’s obsession.  She did get the idea from a real non-fiction book called An Obsession with Anne Frank, as well the diary.  I, for one, was mesmerized by this play for as my husband rightly stated, it combined everything in the world I, myself, care about.  Using a combination of actors, puppets, film, voice-over narration, Groff really sent the message of the play home with me.  However crazed the main character gets, we are continuously being told by himself and Anne Frank that famous last line of the book: Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.

Patinkin plays Sid Silver, an American Jewish writer, who was handed the manuscript of Anne Frank’s diary by his French wife not long after World War II.  He then worked with Simon and Schuster to get it published.  Silver makes immediate plans to adapt it into a powerful play and is determined to make sure that the Jewish voice of Frank and her wartime diary is not lost in the transition from page to stage.  But somewhere along the line, he clashes with the agents and producers, and his version is not brought to Broadway.

He proceeds to spend the next thirty years fighting to have his version brought to the stage.  He spends the next 30 years suing publishers, producers and rival playwrights accusing them of everything from theft to conspiracy to Antisemitism.  He even accuses Anne’s father of betraying his own daughter’s voice.   After struggling and fighting for 30 years to control the rights of the play, it causes problems in every area of his life.  He is obsessed and has visions of Anne Frank and speaks to Anne as a marionette.  Hearing her voice, as well as reading her words on the screen behind the actors adds to the play’s depth.

There are only three characters in the play: Patinkin plays Mr. Sid Silver; Hannah Cabell plays Miss Mermin (his editor) and Mrs. Silver (his wife); and Matte Osian plays Mr. Thomas (his publisher), Mr. Harris, Mr. Ferris and Mr. Matzliach (his artistic director in Israel).  They are all three exceptionally good and the two actors with multiple parts are very convincing.  My husband did even realize that Cabell was playing two parts.  Patinkin, as always, is masterful in the role as Sid Silver, who takes his character through a lifetime of angst.  Leave it to him to nail this part and play it so well, as I have always felt he a Jewish actor who cares about teaching the world about Jewish history.  This play, even though a work of fiction, teaches one, not only about the Holocaust, but about the current state of affairs in Israel and about the dispute over the land.

The play has completed its run, but you can get more information about the Public Theater’s current season here.



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