Compulsion, the new play by Rinnie Groff that opened Thursday at the Public Theater, is a strange piece of work. What is at base a fairly straightforward and essentially true story-frustrated writer goes mad-is simultaneously many different tales rolled into one. It’s about obsession, about paranoia, about writing and creativity and ownership of ideas; it’s about the Holocaust and how American Jews reacted to it and the gentleman’s-agreement anti-Semitism of midcentury America; it’s about Anne Frank, about battles over her legacy, about one man’s almost psychosexual fixation on her. It’s told, in part, with puppets. And it’s fantastic.
Ms. Groff’s protagonist is Sid Silver, and he’s a stand-in for Meyer Levin, the now forgotten author who played a large role in bringing Anne Frank’s diary to American popular consciousness. (Among many other things, Levin wrote a 1956 best-selling novel based on the case of Leopold and Loeb, which he titled Compulsion and which featured a fictionalized version of himself, a character named Sid Silver.)
Levin’s was a fascinating and absorbing train wreck of a life. In his view, and in Sid Silver’s (if not necessarily in precise historical fact), he was single-handedly responsible for bringing the diary to the United States, after discovering a French translation soon after the war and convincing Doubleday to publish it. He made it a success by lauding it on the front page of The New York Times Book Review (this last part is pure truth, though journalistically impure). In return, he wanted to adapt it into a stage play, and he believed Otto Frank had promised him permission to do so. When his script was rejected, and another, by a pair of Hollywood screenwriters (gentiles, notably), turned into the famous and Pulitzer Prize-winning hit, Levin became unhinged. There were suits and countersuits, bizarre conspiracy theories, vitriolic attacks on Otto Frank and a con pulled on-of all things-the IDF, in order to stage the play at last.
What makes Compulsion so compelling is that it’s not—and thank God—about Anne, not yet another Feldshuh-ready Holocaust melodrama. Indeed, Anne is portrayed by a marionette, a girl with no voice of her own, constantly manipulated by others. Ms. Groff uses this remarkable tale to explore much less well-trod territory in a cleverly constructed and daringly theatrical drama.
Silver, in her telling, is legitimately convinced that Anne’s diary is the best way to expose the truth of the Holocaust to the wider world, but he’s also very much aware that it’s his big chance to be a Broadway playwright. He’s genuinely worried that the largely deracinated play undermines Anne’s strong awareness of the Jewish people’s unique struggles and unique obligations, but he’s also paranoid that assimilated publishing-world Jews dismiss him as “too Jewish.” He is dedicated to his wife, but he is powerless as his obsession with Anne and his play wreaks havoc on his marriage and home life.
Mandy Pantinkin plays Silver, as he did in out-of-town stagings at the Yale and Berkeley reps, and he’s clearly dedicated to the role. It’s tough to play an unhinged and unlikable character, and, though Mr. Pantinkin chews a bit too much of Eugene Lee’s simple and effective scenery, he mostly succeeds. He’s the ferocious heart of this play, and, as directed by Oskar Eustis, the Public’s impresario, he remains magnetic even while being unbearable. You see the toll his obsessions take on him, and you see that he sees it, too.
More subtly shining is Hannah Cabell, who plays both the blond Jewish editor at Doubleday with whom Silver spars (based on Barbara Epstein, who would go on to co-found The New York Review of Books) and his aggrieved wife, who is forced to compete with a dead saint for his attentions. Matte Osian does fine work as the interchangeable series of WASPs who Silver is convinced are cheating him, and also as the Israeli director who finally stages Silver’s script.
But just as the best lines in Ms. Groff’s generally brilliant script go to Anne-not just the famous ones from the diary but also some very clever meta-theatrical observations-she’s also the most eye-catching character, a lovely life-size doll (designed by Matt Acheson) manipulated with amazing expressiveness by puppeteers overhead. They remain visible above the stage, letting us see, for a change, the people controlling her words. Silver would like that transparency, but he’d like it more if he was the one pulling the strings.