Hannah Cabell and Mandy Patinkin
in Compulsion
(© Joan Marcus)
Hannah Cabell and Mandy Patinkin
in Compulsion
(© Joan Marcus)
Rinne Groff's Compulsion, now at the Public Theater, is based on the real-life writer Meyer Levin's obsession with exercising a nebulous option to dramatize Anne Frank's diary. But it all begins with puppets.

These evocative half-size creatures, designed by Matt Acheson, figure prominently in this retelling of a calamitous career, and the Public's relatively intimate Martinson Hall affords a better view of their delicate movements than they did at Yale Repertory, where the play originated. Here, the puppets are in plain sight from the outset and better integrated into the action. Some hang in readiness, suspended from a catwalk; while Anne herself is seen writing in that totemic red-and-white-plaid journal as the show begins.

Indeed, it jars to see Frank resurrected as a Bunraku-scale marionette -- even more so to hear her words intoned with the gee-whiz optimism of a starry-eyed bobbysoxer (by Hannah Cabell, half-lit, at an old-fashioned mike stand to the side of Eugene Lee's serviceable set). Surely, part of Frank's undying appeal is the fact that she was no one's puppet. As the machinery of war ("the ever approaching thunder") closed in and her life became almost unimaginably circumscribed, she continued to speak her mind.

This is the very quality that attracted and ultimately maddened Levin (here called Sid Silver and played by Mandy Patinkin), who has a covetous identification with Anne's story. It was he who convinced Doubleday to issue the English-language edition and then ensured its success with a rave in The New York Times Book Review. All he hoped for, in return, was the opportunity to write the dramatization, having secured Otto Frank's verbal (but not his written) permission. But once the book became a bestseller, the publisher granted dramatic rights to producer Cheryl Crawford, who ultimately rejected Levin's script and hired Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Meanwhile, Levin spent the next 30 years fuming and scheming to absurd and even cruel extremes.

It's the invidious aspect of the story, which emerges after a half-hour or so of preliminary exposition, that Groff delineates brilliantly -- and that Patinkin enacts with engrossing credibility. 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 Matte Osian) and an ambitious junior editor (Cabell), Patinkin's Silver is all expansively gesturing hands -- a welcome visual diversion in this generally static staging of serial conversations. His voice tends to go quiet -- high-pitched and sardonic -- just before it erupts in rage.

It's Silver's French-born wife (also Cabell) who bears the brunt of his bitterness. She exacts a promise, via ultimatum, that he'll let the matter drop. They relocate to Israel, and all seems relatively peaceful -- until Silver talks a director friend (Osian again) into putting on a reading.

It's right then that Sid's "mistress," Anne, takes center stage, literally invading their bed. But this time it's Sid (here Patinkin edges into hamminess) voicing Anne's words -- except that they're not hers, they're wholly invented. The dialogue that Groff interpolates for Anne is downright tasteless -- depicting her yearning for the spotlight, musing that she'd sure like to have access to therapy, or, worst of all, posthumously flirting with Sid.

Groff clearly wrestled with how to draw on Frank's story without seeming exploitative, but in the end -- by presuming to speak for Anne -- she loses the battle. Surely, it would have been best to let the lovely, brave young woman have her own say.