Rinne Groff can’t remember a time when she didn’t know about Anne Frank. The daughter of a mother who was both Dutch and Jewish, she has had copies of The Diary of Anne Frank from the time she was a child. That book was just one element behind her new biodrama, Compulsion, which opens officially on February 17 at the Public Theater under Oskar Eustis’ direction, after previous productions at Yale Repertory Theatre and Berkeley Repertory Theatre (which are co-producers of the play), and which is based on the life of author Meyer Levin (called Sid Silver and played by Mandy Patinkin).
As Groff talks on the phone, she casts her eyes to a bookshelf stocked with different editions of the Diary, some of which were part of her collection even before the Amsterdam teen who hid from the Nazis for two years became part of Groff’s professional life.
“I can see a paperback that is very old that was mine, a new version of the diary that just says ‘the definitive edition,’ which was something my mom gave to me because she wanted to share it with me,” says Groff, 41 and the mother of two young girls. “And a few years ago something came out called ‘the revised critical edition’ that I bought when I was already working on this project.”
Indeed, Groff’s bookshelf holds a rare copy of Levin’s stage adaptation of Frank’s diary, which Groff’s husband purchased for her on eBay for about $50. Although Levin helped get Anne’s diary published in the U.S., Broadway producer and Group Theatre cofounder Cheryl Crawford refused to produce his version of the play, opting ultimately for the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Levin’s script, which he boldly self-published after his play was presented in Israel in 1966 — despite not having the legal rights to Anne’s story — continued to haunt him until his death in 1981 at age 75.
Groff was inspired to write the play after readng a review of a book about him. A successful author, Levin becoame obsessed with adapting Anne’s diary for the stage — even as that obsession threatened his marriage to his French-born wife. Even though the play depicts actual events, Groff wasn’t entirely comfortable depicting real-life characters, so in her play, she calls the main character Sid Silver, the nom de plume Levin gave himself in his historical fiction novel Compulsion, about the Leopold and Loeb trial.
“Anne Frank was definitely the hook, but it struck other chords with me,” says Groff, whose play The Ruby Sunrise dealt with how to tell the story of a would-be television pioneer. “It brushes up against so much great American theater history. It’s also a backstage saga about a writer trying to get something on. Then there are larger cultural issues that are raised as to who has the right to control something and how are those rights exercised, and if there are differences morally, it opens up the notion of what should be in the public domain.”
In addition to dramatizing Levin’s time in Israel, Groff culled another dramatic element from Levin’s life for Compulsion. Well before Anne Frank became part of his life, Levin designed marionettes and ran a puppet theater in Chicago, staging productions that included O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. Not only does Compulsion begin with a marionette Anne writing in her diary, but the device also gives rise to the image of Levin as puppeteer, desperate to have a hand in controlling Anne and her story.
In the end, Compulsion questions whether Silver/Levin’s motives are as selfless as he claims (he believed his version gave a voice to all the Jews who died in the Holocaust) or selfish (to attach his name to the work of a writer destined to endure the ages). Yet, in spite of everything, Groff believes he was good at heart.
“I have great sympathy and great love for him,” she says tenderly. “His way of being in the world is a flawed way of being, but it’s also very earnest. He stops being able to see accurately because he is so interested in not having his vision perverted. What I always like to emphasize is that he is buoyed by love. And it’s a romantic love in a way. He fell in love and would do anything because of that love.”