A Frank discussion with a lot of talk
NEW HAVEN - Anne Frank the person has by now been almost completely obscured by Anne Frank the icon: the pure, abstracted image onto which we project a slew of thoughts and feelings about the Holocaust and its slaughter of innocents. So it’s ingenious of Rinne Groff to represent Anne in her new play, “Compulsion,’’ not by a live actor but by a puppet.
That choice might offend if “Compulsion,’’ now receiving its premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, were a play about Anne Frank, but it isn’t. It’s a play about a play about Anne Frank, or more precisely about two plays about Anne Frank: the well-known one by the Hollywood scriptwriters who also gave us “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ and “Father of the Bride,’’ and an almost unknown one by the novelist Meyer Levin, whose bitterness over his treatment by Anne’s father, her diary’s publishers, and his rival playwrights led to the lifelong obsession that is Groff’s real interest here.
Levin is perhaps best remembered for his own lightly fictionalized novel about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, which he had covered as a young journalist. Interestingly enough, he called that novel “Compulsion,’’ and he put himself in it as a character named Sid Silver. Groff takes the title and the character name, but otherwise barely refers to Levin’s other work, as the play “Sid’’ wants to present about Anne Frank’s life slowly eclipses everything else he’s done, both professionally and personally. Increasingly paranoid and enraged, he’s convinced that everyone from Lillian Hellman to Eleanor Roosevelt is conspiring to suppress his adaptation of the diary because it’s “too Jewish.’’
There are layers aplenty to this story, obviously, and the device of using 4-foot-tall marionettes to present bits of each play (along with Groff’s own imagined Anne) usefully pushes us to notice the layering. It also strains out some of the sentimentality that can too easily seep into any treatment of Anne’s young, tragic life, and it of course provokes thoughts of how Levin - here lightly fictionalized but otherwise remarkably like his eloquent, abrasive, relentless real-life self - unwittingly manipulates his idea of Anne as a stand-in for his own obsessions.
But Groff’s skill in structuring and balancing these layers unfortunately doesn’t extend to her construction of the specific scenes that make up her play. Too often, “Compulsion’’ bogs down in talk. It’s too full of long, static conversations, many of them dense with exposition and pocked with jarringly anachronistic idioms. Groff’s themes and images tantalize, but the execution puts us off.
Director Oskar Eustis, who also collaborated with Groff on her best-known play, “Ruby Sunrise,’’ must shoulder some of the responsibility for this deadening effect; even with only three actors to work with, he could have found livelier ways to deploy them onstage and to play the live action against the puppetry. Perhaps when “Compulsion’’ moves to Eustis’s own Public Theater in New York and then to Berkeley Repertory Theatre (both of which are coproducing with Yale Rep), he’ll make fuller use of Eugene Lee’s evocative set, which frames the puppet stage within the larger “real-life’’ space. And, please, lose the cliched sound cues: wistful piano and violin, clackety-clack trains.
Eustis could perhaps also encourage the playwright to add some nuance to her secondary characters: an eager young editor and a succession of interchangeable suits at Doubleday, a lawyer, a theater director, and, most troublingly, Sid’s wife. Hannah Cabell portrays her (and the editor) with energy and conviction, but she needs more than a thick French accent and a bathetic exchange with Anne to build a character on - just as Stephen Barker Turner deserves more than some weak WASP jokes for all those bland men.
Mandy Patinkin fares better as Sid, with more than enough material to create a character from. Patinkin makes Sid’s mercurial shifts from ingratiating bonhomie to suspicious rage at once believable and scary; we’ve all known writers like this, bursting with talent and drive but helpless against their poisonous distrust of anyone who seems insufficiently impressed. Groff is right to find him a fascinating character. Now she just needs to pare down the excesses that keep us from discovering his fascinating complexity for ourselves.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.