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Rinne Groff’s ‘Compulsion’ in New YorkBY: Carol Rocamora 03.01.2011
Rinne Groff’s haunting play springs from her long fascination with the writer Meyer Levin, whose own obsession with Anne Frank provides a compelling coda to the Holocaust.
Compulsion. By Rinne Groff; Oskar Eustis directed. Through March 13, 2011 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. (at Astor Pl.), New York. (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org.
The last victim of the HolocaustCAROL ROCAMORA
Is it possible to become obsessed with a play about obsession?
I haven’t stopped thinking about Rinne Groff’s compelling new play, Compulsion, since I saw it at the Public Theatre in New York a few nights ago. From the moment you enter the theater, the stunning sight of six almost-life-size puppets dangling over the stage will capture your imagination and pique more than your curiosity— especially when you discover that one of those puppets is none other than Anne Frank, whose Holocaust diary is one of the 20th Century’s most treasured documents.
Rinne Groff’s moving play springs from her long fascination with the writer Meyer Levin, a Jewish-American journalist, filmmaker, novelist and Zionist whose life story provides a provocative and haunting coda to the Anne Frank story. When Levin first read Anne Frank’s diary after it was published in Europe in 1947, he recognized it as the ideal vehicle to tell the story of the Holocaust to the world. He contacted Otto Frank, Anne’s father, who had survived the war, and helped him get his daughter’s diary published in America in 1952.
Levin even convinced the New York Times to allow him to write the review, which was printed on the front page of the Sunday Book Review. In return, Otto Frank promised Levin the rights to adapt the diary for the stage. Here is where the trouble– and Groff’s play– begins.
Levin’s version bypassed
Levin wrote his first draft of the play; however, the theater producers decided instead to commission the non-Jewish screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to dramatize the Anne Frank story. Called The Diary of Anne Frank, the Goodrich/Hackett version was produced on Broadway in 1955, directed by Garson Kanin, starring Joseph Schildkraut and Susan Strasberg. It was an immediate hit, winning the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Critics’ Circle award.
Enraged, Levin filed numerous lawsuits against the producers, the writers, and even one against his friend Otto Frank as well. Levin contended that Goodrich and Hackett had lifted original scenes from his version and used them in their own. The court initially ruled in Levin’s favor and offered a settlement, providing that he sign away his rights ever to have his own version produced. To avoid further litigation costs, Levin acquiesced.
Paranoia sets in
But Levin didn’t leave it at that. He remained convinced that his play was far superior to the Goodrich/Hackett version, which he felt diminished the Jewish elements of the story. He saw the entire saga as a plot against him (with author Lillian Hellman and other public figures as his adversaries), against the integrity of the diary, and indeed against the memory of the Holocaust itself. Paranoid and delusional, estranged from his friends and family, he spent the next 25 years fighting to vindicate his play until his death in 1981.
Years later, when Groff read about Meyer Levin’s quest in Lawrence Graver’s book An Obsession with Anne Frank, she herself became fascinated with the story. As an American Jew of Dutch descent, Groff had read the diary and visited the Anne Frank house many times, but she was completely unfamiliar with the backstage drama. She immersed herself in research, in search of how to dramatize it and, above all, how to represent Anne Frank herself on stage.
Anne as a puppet
When she came across an article on Meyer Levin’s work as a puppeteer, the inspiration came to her – that Anne should be a marionette, and that other puppets as well should function as characters in the play. The puppets in Compulsion have been designed with the utmost artistic care; in fact, if you look closely at the puppet of Anne Frank, you will see that it is covered in pieces of paper with excerpts from the diary written on it. The resulting production of Compulsion opened at Yale Repertory Theatre last season, and went on to Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California before coming to the Public this month.
The dramatization of the Meyer Levin story, as conceived by Groff and directed with elegance and sensitivity by Oskar Eustis, is positively inspired. Groff employs three actors playing numerous characters to tell Levin’s story, from the writing of his play until his death. Guided by Eustis’s skilled direction and Eugene Lee’s expert digital scenery, we follow Sid Silver (the fictive name that Groff gives to Meyer Levin) over a 30-year period from Amsterdam to New York to Israel and back to America again. The charismatic Mandy Patinkin plays Silver with alternating charm and frightening paranoia, opposite the versatile Hannah Cabell, who plays both Silver/Levin’s agent and his wife.
Anne and Levin, alone onstage
It’s the ingenious use of puppets (designed brilliantly by Matt Acheson) that renders the play and the production so powerful. Anne Frank becomes the play’s Greek chorus, as well as Silver/Levin’s muse, his inspiration and his conscience. The moments when the puppet Anne Frank and Silver/Levin are alone onstage are breathtaking. They constitute the heart of the play. When she speaks those immortal lines from the diary— “I still believe that people are really good at heart”— we’re reminded of the dignity and beacon-light quality of Anne Frank’s priceless legacy.
Third, it serves as a sobering reminder of the fine line between dedication and fanatical obsession (in the theater as well as in politics and history).
Above all, it invites us to appreciate anew the value of Anne Frank’s diary– both as Holocaust literature as well as a universal coming-of-age story, one that we continually strive to be worthy of receiving.♦
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