Many people who have done great things and changed the world would have been forgotten if not for an obsession to browbeat or elbow their ways into other people's lives. “Compulsion,” open now at the Public Theater, explores this kind of indomitable determination with a look at a chapter in one man’s life.
The play follows the life of Sid Silver, who is modeled after the real-life Meyer Levin, a Jewish-American novelist perhaps best remembered for his book about the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. Levin was also the man credited with bringing Anne Frank’s diary to the United States. In “Compulsion,” Silver is a novelist and playwright sidled with a Sisyphean dream: to see his version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" performed on the stage. Producing his version of the play becomes an all-consuming obsession that undoes Silver’s relationship with Otto Frank (Anne's father) and the publishers of the diary in America, Doubleday. When the publisher’s don’t choose him as the playwright, Silver claims, among other things, that a conspiracy of anti-Semites is responsible for dismissing his masterpiece in the place of a Broadway version that expunges the play's Judaic mission. Silver’s single-minded mission to have Anne Frank immortalized his way also puts a serious strain on his marriage at home.
Because Anne is at once Silver's muse as well as the cause of his self-inflicted oppression, it is appropriate that the producers of “Compulsion” have given her a physical presence onstage: Anne appears in the form of a hauntingly recognizable marionette (crafted by puppeteer Matt Acheson). As the marionette dangles from the capable hands of her puppeteers above the stage, the audience is struck with the symbolism of Silver's plight: he is a man devoid of free will in the face of his compulsion to see his play make it to the stage.
Mandy Patinkin plays Silver, and he takes advantage of every explosion and rant in Rinne Groff's text. As he frets and fights with his destiny (and with his wife, played by Hannah Cabell), Patinkin's manic glissandos from despair to angry doggedness signal his character’s obsessive behavior but at times are too big and wide to be believable. Cabell (who also plays an ambitious young Doubleday publishing agent) and the play's other cast member, Matte Osian (who plays multiple roles as well), act their parts with rigorous attention to physicality under the direction of Oskar Eustis. Audience members may not even notice that they are, in fact, appearing in several roles.
When the play has ended, it is hard to like Sid Silver or forgive his maniacal narcissism, especially when his story is juxtaposed to that of Anne Frank’s. Still, "Compulsion" does send a message that perhaps perseverance can win the crown of history. After all, Groff and Patinkin have brought Silver (and Meyer Levin by association) back to life at the Public.