Mandy Patinkin in Compulsion
(© Joan Marcus)
Mandy Patinkin in Compulsion
(© Joan Marcus)
Rinne Groff's Compulsion, now premiering at Yale Rep under Oskar Eustis' direction, is a problem play, and also a problematic one. Not only does it jar to see Anne Frank resurrected as a Bunraku-scale puppet, it's even more jarring to hear words put in her mouth, especially when they're intoned with the gee-whiz, all-American optimism of a starry-eyed bobby-soxer. Surely Frank's undying appeal -- beyond her tragic martyrdom -- is the fact that she was no one's puppet. As the machinery of war closed in and her life became almost unimaginably circumscribed, she continued to speak her mind.

This is the very quality that attracts and ultimately maddens the writer Sid Silver (played with engrossing credibility by Mandy Patinkin), a thinly fictionalized stand-in for the real-life author Meyer Levin, who allowed his career to be derailed by an obsessive quest to dramatize Anne's diary.

We've all known people like Silver, whose surface geniality can flip to a default-mode aggrievedness within the space of a sentence. When dealing with a series of suits at Doubleday (well played by Stephen Barker Turner) and an ambitious junior editor (Hannah Cabell), Patinkin's Silver is all expansively gesturing hands -- a welcome visual diversion in this generally static staging of serial conversations -- and his voice tends to go high-pitched and sardonic just before it erupts in rage. As a character study, Compulsion is compelling, and had the play focused more on this deeply conflicted man, the play would be stronger.

But there's so much extraneous stage business, especially those puppets. Delicate and charming as they may be (Basil Twist consulted on Matt Acheson's design), they're not a good match for the documentary tenor of the play and they bring little to the drama that couldn't have been accomplished by other, less intrusive means. Simple voiceovers, for instance, would have left more to the imagination, while leaving intact our shared images of the real Anne. There's one instance in Act 2 where the puppet's physical presence is put to nicely spooky effect, but too quickly --- as often happens in this play -- the scene devolves into bathos.

How to appropriate Frank's story without seeming exploitative is a conundrum that Silver wrestles with early on. Groff may have struggled with the same issue, but she repeatedly loses the battle. She extrapolates dialogue for Anne that is downright tasteless -- depicting her yearning for the spotlight or posthumously flirting. In the end, one wishes that Groff had let the lovely, brave young woman have her own say. She earned it.