In “Compulsion,” an over-the-top psychodrama at New York’s Public Theater, Mandy Patinkin plays a literary critic and novelist who nursed a decades-long obsession to bring his adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to the stage.
Playwright Rinne Groff based the character on Meyer Levin, whose 1952 New York Times review of “The Diary of a Young Girl” helped make the translation a best seller.
He wrote that the voice of the brilliant girl -- who was hidden with seven others in Amsterdam during World War II and perished of typhus and malnutrition at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944 -- represented “the voice of six million vanished Jewish souls.”
A complicated, ultimately sympathetic man, Levin protested as her story became “infantilized, Americanized, homogenized and sentimentalized,” as Cynthia Ozick wrote in the New Yorker. Believing he had the rights to dramatize the diary, he sued Otto Frank, Anne’s father, for fraud and breach of contract.
As written by Groff and played by Patinkin, the Levin character, here named Sid Silver, is shrill, humorless and given to bellowing. Two actors (Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian) play all his foils, including publishing executives and his wife. That highlights his paranoia but gives the show, staged by Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis, a boxed-in feel.
Projections and video by Jeff Sugg are used to remarkable effect. Marionettes, including one for Anne Frank, are lifelike and mesmerizing. But a second-act scene of Anne talking with the wife -- Patinkin provides Anne’s voice -- is as tasteless as it sounds. It ends with Patinkin as Levin singing in Yiddish.
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” by screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, opened to great acclaim on Broadway in 1955 (a 1997 revival featured Natalie Portman in the title role). Levin, who died in 1981, complained that the show downplayed Anne’s Jewishness.
“Compulsion,” in contrast, is a meticulous if anemic play of ideas. As Levin learned most painfully, seriousness of intent is no guarantee of success.
Through March 13 at 425 Lafayette St. Information: +1-212-967-7555; http://www.publictheater.org Rating: *
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(Philip Boroff is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)