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February 05, 2010

A Review of Rinne Groff's Compulsion, the Preview

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Venue: Yale Repertory Theatre
Date: 2nd February 2010
[Contains spoilers]

Compulsion is a play about a play that plagiarises a play about a book. It is that complex! The idea for Compulsion apparently came from an article in a New York newspaper titled ‘An Obsession with Anne Frank: Meyer Levin and the Diary’ ( see interview in New Haven Register). The feature caught the eye of the writer Rinne Groff and she went on to create an entire play based on the life of the Jewish writer Meyer Levin , who was one of the first American journalists to become aware of the diary of Anne Frank . The title of the play is, of course, riffing on Levin’s 1956 book Compulsion about the Leopald and Loeb case . In this play, however, it refers not to a crime, but to Levin’s obsession with the Anne Frank diaries and his turmoil when his own adaptation of the play is rejected for a version that is ‘less Jewish’.

In Groff’s play, Levin becomes Sid Silver, a doppelganger that Levin created for himself in his own writing, and the play moves beyond the biographical. The play is divided into three parts:
*the discovery of Anne Frank’s diary and Sid Silver’s deal with Doubleday Publishing to write a play version;
*Silver losing the rights to the play and his legal battle with Doubleday and the “other play’s” producers;
*and his move to Israel where he tries to create a new production of his Anne Frank play.

Sid Silver is played by Mandy Patinkin who works hard to make us understand his character’s obsession. Hannah Cabell is excellent too in her two roles as the ambitious and amoral Miss Mermin who represents Doubleday publsihing; and the long-suffering wife of Sid Silver, one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole play. Sid Silver is attracted to both women and this doubleness seems to say something about Sid’s perception of womanhood itself. Stephen Baker Turner is also good playing a succession of anti-Jewish/anti-Sid businessmen and lawyers; he is also convincing in the more sympathetic role of Mr. Matzliach who sets up a production of Sid’s play with Israeli youth, only to find that Sid has signed an agreement never to produce the play.

One of the most spectacular actors in the play is Anne Frank herself who appears in a number of eerie scenes in puppet form (manipulated by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright). In one especially memorable scene, Mrs Silver wakes in bed only to find the puppet there between her and her husband. They begin a conversation in which the wife begs Anne to leave her husband alone, and Anne Frank’s replies – ominously voiced by Patinkin himself – offer little hope that the girl will be forgotten.

So the eerie presence of the puppets and the precision of the actors makes this play worth watching, but there is something missing. It is, of course, difficult to make a book deal and its consequent legal wranglings into a proper subject for drama, and there is something lacking in the exchanges of dialogue. It is obvious where this play is going and I could have predicted what happened from beginning to end after the opening scene. There are not many surprises here, and while it could be said that this is down to the connection to the real-life story of Meyer Levin, we are told that the play departs from this biography so why not surprise us? The extracts of the “Anne Frank plays” acted out by the puppets only reflect badly on the dialogue in the actual play which seems to be lacking energy and originality.

There are a lot of jokes surrounding Jewishness, but most of these have been done to death. When a lawyer asks Sid Silver, ‘D’you’, and he replies, ‘Jew?’, you immediately think of Woody Allen in Annie Hall and wonder why a more original line wasn’t found for the exchange. Sid Silver’s quest to foreground the Jewish issue is sympathetic however, and the play does make you wonder about the extent of post-war anti-semitism in the US. When the play moves to Israel for its final scenes, Sid becomes less sympathetic in his views about neighbouring arab states, and his wife is set up as a foil, expressing more pacifist views about relations with others. The writer holds up an irony here: that Sid begins his quest fighting for the rights of a minority and the suffering of the Holocaust, but ends by celebrating the beginning of a new war because it gives his play a better chance of being produced. Some of the scenes in which he expresses his views about Palestine/Israeli relations are very uncomfortable.

One of the most successful parts of the play is the relationship between Sid Silver and his wife. Some of the most entertaining exchanges feature Sid in the stereotypical feminine role of non-logic and emotion and his wife as a voice of reason. This reversal works well and is one of the most entertaining aspects of the play.


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