What's in a Word?

167r1 Meyer Levin, a writer best-known for his novel Compulsion, the story of the Leopold-Loeb murder and trial, wanted to be known as the man who wrote a play based on the diary of Anne Frank.  He met with Otto Frank to discuss that possibility before Anne’s book had even been published in the U.S.

But the task of writing a play from the diary went to the Hollywood screenwriting team of Hackett/Goodrich, and their play won a Pulitzer Prize.  In Levin’s view, their play succeeded by downplaying the overt Jewish elements in Anne Frank’s story, universalizing it into a tale of unjust suffering and a young girl’s moral insight.  Levin himself called his effort to present a more authentic theatrical version of Anne Frank an obsession.

Rinne Groff’s new play, Compulsion, opened Thursday in its debut at the Yale Repertory, directed by Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater, which, along with Berkeley Repertory, commissioned the play.  The play recreates Levin’s struggle -- fictionalized in the person of Sid Silver and incarnated on stage by a bristling, touchy, sincere, sarcastic, soulfully suffering, and at one memorable moment, light-heartedly soft-shoeing Mandy Patinkin.

But the title, in opting for Levin’s word “compulsion,” used to characterize what drove Leopold and Loeb to murder, rather than Levin’s word “obsession,” chosen for his autobiographical account of his struggle with the Anne Frank material, indicates the problem the play presents us with.  It suggests that Silver is not righteously obsessed -- as one might be with an injustice, trying to alter a situation that nags at one -- but rather under a compulsion, as one might be when neurotically driven to certain behavior, such as having to repeat the same lesson over and over.

Both things might be true, and it’s up to the audience how far they go along with Silver in his crusade, first, to be the one who makes a play of the diary, and, when that hope must finally be relinquished, to get recognition that the Hackett/Goodrich play stole from his, then to mount a staging of his play (though he had signed away any right to do so) to show that his play is, as a friend says, “the more important play.”

Groff’s play is fast-moving, enough, in these arguments over Silver’s play -- though they rely on an interest in show biz that all viewers may not share.  Silver’s character is further fleshed out by his life with his French wife (Hannah Cabell), a writer herself, who offers a few erotically charged moments and also provides moral support, until driven to almost suicidal despair by her husband’s obsession.  At that point, just before intermission, the drama between the two becomes the greater focus of the play, though the figure of Anne stills presents its fascination.

In what may be the play's  most memorable scene,  Anne, rendered as a marionette, appears in bed beside Mrs. Silver to discuss  her husband.   The scene stages the triangulation among Silver, his wife, and Anne, and further complicates the relation via Silver's identification with Otto Frank.  Anne, voiced in this scene by Patinkin, expresses the pathos of her father, a man Silver excoriated for betraying their beloved Anne after her death.

Compulsion's use of marionettes -- not only for Anne, but also for scenes from the two different plays based on her book -- is a brilliant idea that occurred to Groff when she learned that Levin had once worked in puppet theater.  The marionette of Anne allows the play to convey Anne’s indeterminate age in the present -- is she the age she was when she died, or the age she would be had she lived?  The marionette also registers the extent to which Anne Frank has become “a puppet” of her representations, and, thus, no longer a flesh and blood entity.

Ultimately the play’s theme is the question of whether Silver’s cause is important for Jewish identity, as he insists, or whether it is simply a personal matter involving his obsession with Anne and what she suffered.  (In real life, Levin was a war correspondent who did see firsthand the horror of the Nazi camps, and it was his review of The Diary of a Young Girl in the New York Times that was pivotal in catapulting it to bestseller status -- both attributes are retained for Silver, so we do see him as a man to be taken seriously.)

The script makes Silver more of a wordsmith than he perhaps has a right to be -- using coinages such as “cash cow” and “in the loop” in the Fifties, a decade or two before they had become common currency.  Though it has more than a few entertaining exchanges, the play offers little in the way of dramatic reversals, recognitions, or romantic complications to add entertainment to what is essentially a hard-luck show biz tale.

At yet the play is more compelling than a tale of someone passed over on the road to fame and glory, and that’s because of the figure of Anne Frank.  But we have to be willing to see the meaning of the Holocaust as implicated in her cultural status, and, as Silver insists, in the fate of his play.  But again it seems more fitting to highlight Silver’s obsession with Anne and what she represents, rather than his compulsion to insist on that relation.

COMPULSION By RINNE GROFF Directed by OSKAR EUSTIS Featuring HANNAH CABELL, MANDY PATINKIN, STEPHEN BARKER TURNER January 29 to February 28, 2010 Yale Repertory Theatre 1120 Chapel Street A co-production with The Public Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre