Eye on Theatre: Compulsion By John Simon

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Simon_John COMPULSION_Mandy Patinkin . Photo Credit Joan Marcus.Mandy Patinkin.>>>

Almost everyone knows the tragic story of Anne Frank, and many have read the young victim of the Nazis’ extraordinary diary. Some people may even have read Meyer Levin’s, the well-known Jewish-American writer’s memoir about his obsession with adapting that diary for the stage.

Levin’s glowing front-page review of the book in the New York Times Book Review greatly helped the sales in America, but his stage version did not impress Doubleday, the American publishers, or their adviser Lillian Hellman. Instead, an adaptation commissioned from the husband and wife team of screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett became a Broadway and international hit.

COMPULSION_Hannah Cabell and Mandy Patinkin Photo Credit Joan Marcus.<<<Hannah Cabell and Mandy Patinkin.

Now there is no denying that this version from non-Jewish Hollywood prettifiers could and did enrage Levin, furious that his version was rejected for allegedly being “too Jewish.” Otto Frank, Anne’s father, had broken his promise to grant Levin the rights to adaptation, and Levin sued, winning $50,000 in damages which the judge set aside until further proof that some of his play was used by the Hackett’s could be obtained. But he was also sweet-talked or bullied into abrogating any future rights to a production of his version, lest neither be mounted.

We get scenes of Sid Silver (though named after an autobiographical character in a Levin novel) with various Doubleday staffers and lawyers, with his charming French writer wife Tereska Torres—always referred to as Mrs. Silver—and, finally, scenes in Israel where the Silver’s immigrated. There an Israeli theatre director got Silver a production of his version by the Army Theater, which he announced in a letter to the New York Times, causing further trouble.

Mandy Patinkin and Matte Osian.>>>COMPULSION_Mandy Patinkin and Matte Osian in Compulsion Photo Credit Joan Marcus.

Intermittently Anne Frank herself appears, played by a puppet, getting variously involved and once even insinuating her way into the Silver marital bed between the spouses. Anne’s lines are sometimes spoken by Silver, which I found disturbing; at others, by Miss Mermin, a Doubleday editor, and played in a blond wig by the same actress who plays Mrs. Silver in a red one.

To keep the human cast down to three, several male roles are played by the same actor; two further puppets make interesting appearances, one as Anne’s boyfriend, the other as a lawyer, Mr. Ferris, with a killer knife in his back. The presence of puppets can be partly explained by Meyer Levin having been briefly a puppeteer in his youth. They are very convincing puppets expertly made by Matt Acheson.
Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater, has directed efficiently. There is apt scenery by Eugene Lee, good video and projection design by Jeff Sugg, authentic costuming by Susan Hilferty, and able lighting by Michael Chybowski. But the ace card of the production is Mandy Patinkin in the lead.        
Now Patinkin is a maximalist actor, who throws himself into every role with reckless abandon, shouts, weeps, or whines, lunges like a fencer, gesticulates like a perfervid traffic cop, and, toward the end, stares fixedly with an expression midway between pathos and dementia. Seated in the second row, I was not without concern that he might charge me like a rogue elephant or land in my lap like a ventriloquist’s dummy, neither of which I would have relished. Personally, I have always preferred less flamboyance—especially perhaps the sort of inspired underacting Ralph Richardson excelled at—but if you go in for heaven-storming histrionics, Patinkin is surely your man.

Hannah Cabell is delightful in her dual role, with or without a lightsome French accent, and manages two antithetic personalities with exemplary ease, her cool Miss Mermin metamorphosing seamlessly into the mostly warm Mrs. Silver. Matte Osian handles the four or five male roles (one loses count) with similar dexterity, and the puppets, too, perform irreproachably.

inne Groff’s writing is entirely idiomatic for American, French and Israeli characters, and the story she tells is an unflaggingly gripping one. Her Silver may propound Judaism and excoriate anti-Semitism a mite more shrilly and frequently than would seem necessary, but I dare say Meyer Levin was not a bit less emphatic.

Levin used the title, Compulsion, for his novel—and subsequent stage and screen versions—about the Loeb and Leopold murder case, one of his chief successes. As for the Levin stage version of the Anne Frank story, it has been mounted in a student production at Brandeis University in 1972 without legal hassle. I can see no reason why the two versions should not more or less peacefully coexist.

The Public Theater

(Co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theater)

425 Lafayette Street

Tickets: (212) 967-7555 or


John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New CriterionNational ReviewNew York MagazineOpera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com andBloomberg News. He reviews books for the   New York Times Book Review andWashington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a    PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard UniversityBard College and Marymount Manhattan College. To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.

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eHeziEye on Theatre: Compulsion By John Simon

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