Compulsion is aptly named.
A provocative drama, it's based on Meyer Levin's efforts to adapt The Diary of Anne Frank into a Broadway play. Levin engineered the Diary's English publication, but what he longed for was the chance to dramatize Anne's story. Stymied by Doubleday, her publisher, and Otto Frank, her father, Levin spent decades obsessed with Anne Frank and what he believed was the annihilation of her spirit.
Rinne Groff's Compulsion, now at the Public Theater, chronicles that obsession, which manifest in both marital discord and endless litigation.
As a Jewish-American writer, Levin (known here as Sid Silver) was deeply committed to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. (A volcanic Mandy Patinkin portrays him.) Though Otto Frank promised Levin dramatic rights, and he was instrumental in the book's success, his subsequent script was rejected. A "safer" version was selected, setting the stage for acrimonious legal battles.
At issue is the 1955 Broadway play, which championed universality over specificity, robbing Anne of her Jewishness. Equally sinful, in Levin's view, it hued less to the actual diary and more to the commercial, sentimental instincts of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, non-Jews who wrote the sanitized script.
Levin's anger appears wholly justified -- and few would disagree with his passionate defense of truth. (Anne's pride in being Jewish, absent from the 1950s stage version, was restored in revivals, citing her actual words. The Diary of Anne Frank has also been contextualized; portions missing from the original book have been restored.)
But passion isn't always pretty -- and Levin's obsession with Anne Frank (represented by an eerily emotional puppet, beautifully designed by Matt Acheson) was all-consuming. In Groff's skillful hands, fact, fiction and fabrication are laid bare. So are those who fought with Levin: an annoying junior editor (Hannah Cabell) and a bigoted publisher (Matte Osian) more concerned with the Diary's profits than its larger purpose.
Compulsion is sympathetic to Levin, but doesn't shy from noting his flaws. He's dedicated, egoistic, paranoid and self-aggrandizing, willing to sacrifice all for his cause, however noble. Some of the dialogue is occasionally strained, but the issues are mighty and the production gripping. Groff is aided by Eugene Lee's evocative set design. Michael Chybowski's lighting and Jeff Sugg's video projections.
As strong as Patinkin is, it's Anne Frank who dominates the stage. Her story, and her legacy, are indelible.
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