I attended the matinee performance of "Compulsion" at the Public Theater this afternoon. Mandy Patinkin stars, with a supporting cast of Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian. Patinkin plays a thinly disguised version of Meyer Levin, under the name of Sid Silver. This is a dramatization of the struggles of Levin over the dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank.
The Silver character served in the US military in Europe during WWII, participating in the liberation of the concentration camps, married a young French woman, and then became obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank when his wife gave him a copy of the French language publication. He contacted Otto Frank and thought he had an arrangement to represent Frank in attempting to get an American publisher to take up the work. But it turned out that Frank was dealing directly with Doubleday, and Silver's role is minimized, although he is encouraged to review the book for the NY Times, writing a piece that helps to boost it to the best seller list. He also thinks he has a deal with Frank to write the stage play based on the Diary, but is edged out by publisher and producer in favor of experienced writers who will produce something "more commercial" (i.e., "less Jewish" and more "universal" in appeal). Silver's struggles continue, endangering his marriage and his sanity, and he dies an embittered man, after having moved to Israel and gotten a Hebrew language production of his own adaptation to be staged, only to be quickly shut down over threat of legal action.
The story is one of a man obsessed, who is determined that the story be told in all the fullness of Anne Frank's Jewish identity, and crushed as he is excluded at every turn by those who want this to be a "universal" story that will not be seen as just being of "narrow" Jewish interest.
The issue of who owns this story and how it should be told are central here.
Patinkin plays the main part as a man obsessed, bitter, argumentative, possible to understand but hard to like, and eager to pick fights with both friend and foe. Hannah Cabell is effectively playing two characters – Silver's French wife and the junior executive at Doubleday with whom he deals on publication issues. Matte Osian slips from character to character, playing publishing executives, a lawyer, and finally an Israeli theater producer.
What really struck me apart from the story and acting as such (and effective direction by Oskar Eustis) was the extraordinary set designed by Eugene Lee. Effective use is made of puppetry, lighting, and, at the beginning, effectively setting the mood, to a recording of the beginning of Mahler's 10th Symphony – appropriately, a yearning, unfinished work.
The theater was packed – every seat occupied. Despite the mixed critical reviews, this seems to be a success by Public Theater standards.