In Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion,” which receives its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theater, the question is, whose Anne is it anyway? That’s Anne Frank, whose diary is at the center of this fascinating but as yet unrealized drama about one man’s devotion to bringing Frank’s writings and story — and all they represent — to life on the stage.There’s the Anne Frank of the prize-winning play and film, commercially crafted and “de-Judaized” to reach the widest possible audience. Then there’s the Anne of Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin), the protagonist of “Compulsion,” based on Meyer Levin, a writer whose obsession with bringing his version of the diary to the stage veers from mission to madness. Finally, there’s the Anne of playwright Groff’s imagination — a wise child, an astute observer, a “teller” who sees with clarity and calms the actions of these mortal figures. “Everyone likes me better dead,” Anne says without rancor or judgment. These Annes are all in evidence in Groff’s revealing and sometimes touching work, sensitively helmed by Public Theater a.d. Oskar Eustis and powered by Patinkin in the lead role. Eugene Lee designs a simple set that provides a subtle yet constant reminder of what goes on behind closed doors, theatrical curtains and disguised walls. But it’s Groff’s Anne who draws us closest to “Compulsion,” which at this stage of its evolution — subsequent productions are expected at Berkeley Rep and the Public — is still finding its voice. Anne — as well as her father Otto and the late Miep Gies, who helped hide Frank and her family and preserve the young girl’s diary — are here portrayed in haunting vignettes by marionettes, expertly handled by Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright. The use of puppetry is apt on several levels. Meyer once ran a marionette theater in Chicago; it not only reflects his art but his need for complete control. Designed by Matt Acheson with consultancy from Basil Twist, the puppets in “Compulsion” also give the play its grace, which elevates the work from backstage melodrama to an entirely different kind of experience. It’s that aspect that feeds the deeper levels Groff — who wrote about the appropriation of another young woman’s work in “The Ruby Sunrise” — is so clearly after. Serving as metaphor, memory and the embodiment of yearning, the puppetry and the writing that surrounds it provide a poetic glimpse into these characters’ paradoxical conflicts. The play’s most powerful scene is when Silver’s wife (Hannah Cabell) — frustrated by her husband’s obsession with his “other woman” — converses with Anne in bed, as Silver/Patinkin gives voice to Anne. The scene floats in another dimension, its profound longing, sadness and truth-telling able to be spoken only in a dream. But much of the first act is grounded — if not weighted — in the nuts and bolts of a narrative as stuffed with detail and research as a legal brief. There’s much talk on copyright issues, contracts and lawsuits. Groff tries to lighten the load with wit and fancy, but it still feels heavy-handed. In the first act we follow Silver’s series of meetings with interchangeable publishing execs, a lawyer and an ambitious young Jewish editor (Cabell again) who has “chosen not to be Chosen.” The play and playing is very clear — often obviously so — as to the insensitivity and craven goals involved in commercial pursuit of the property. One suit, played by Stephen Barker Turner, off-handedly describes Anne as “a young Jewess who wrote one heck of a diary.” Theater insiders — but perhaps few others — will savor the biographical digs and details about producer Cheryl Crawford, writer Carson McCullers and, especially, playwright Lillian Hellman, who comes across as the master manipulator of the “more universal” Broadway production, cutting the diary’s conscience to fit her own political agenda. “Compulsion” becomes more compelling in its relationship between Silver and his wife (played with the right balance of strength and suffering by Cabell), who is driven to despair by her husband’s single-mindedness. It’s difficult to envision an actor better suited to the role of Silver — one who evokes awe, charm and exasperation, as Patinkin does. In lesser hands, Silver’s behavior — he even turns on Otto Frank, Anne’s father, calling him his Hitler — could be alienating or even wearisome. But Patinkin gives a varied and nuanced performance, beguiling those around him only to increasingly reveal that he is beyond therapy, filled with pain and paranoia. It’s a bravura turn, full of heart even as Silver’s mind becomes lost in the sea of infinite ache and rage that is the Holocaust. “Compulsion” has not yet found the liberating voice to link its multiples ideas and themes. Perhaps it should look more to the marionettes to give the work the theatrical transcendence it needs to reflect the real, imagined and eternal Anne.
Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven, Conn.; 480 seats; $82 top
A Yale Repertory Theater, Public Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Rinne Groff. Directed by Oskar Eustis.
Sets, Eugene Lee; costumes, Lisa Loen; lighting, Marie Yokoyama; sound, Darron L. West; puppet design and supervision, Matt Acheson; puppet consultant, Basil Twist; production stage manager, Jessica Barker. Opened, reviewed Feb. 4, 2010. Runs though Feb. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
Mr. Silver - Mandy Patinkin Miss Mermin, Mrs. Silver - Hannah Cabell Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris - Stephen Barker Turner
With: Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley, Eric Wright.