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Theater Review (New Haven): Compulsion at Yale Rep

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I was really looking forward to seeing Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of Compulsion, starring Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin. Unfortunately, while Compulsion is a complex and thought-provoking drama, it was an overall disappointment. Staged with a combination of actors and marionettes, the brief forays into surrealism detracted from the story that was being told. I left the theater puzzled, with the overall impression that it was just a little too weird for my taste.

The play was inspired by the lives of Anne Frank and Meyer Levin, the man who helped to make her diary a bestseller and who became obsessed with becoming the writer to create the stage play of her work. It speaks to the very nature of how individuals and societies view their heroes, or in this case, heroines, and also to the complex processes involved in writing, the publishing business and playwriting. Ultimately, it questions what is the measure of a man’s success, as we witness a career that was derailed by paranoia, an overwhelming sense of religious persecution, bad business sense, and the inability to let go.

Mandy Patinkin in Compulsion (© Joan Marcus)

In this play, Meyer Levin is represented by one of his characters, Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin). Sid was a novelist and war correspondent who covered the liberation of the concentration camps in Eastern Europe. As an outsider, Sid was convinced that he could not convey the magnitude of the horrors inflicted in the concentration camps, but hoped that a ‘teller’ – someone who lived and wrote from inside the camp, would. That person was Anne Frank.

Sid’s wife, Tereska, introduced him to a French version of the diary in 1950. Sid was so moved, and impressed by Anne’s writing, that he contacted Otto Frank and was an integral part of bringing the diary to the attention of Doubleday, to be published as a novel. He was asked to write the New York Times review of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, and that review helped to catapult the book to bestseller status. Sid also spoke to Otto about adapting the diary into a play, and with a verbal agreement, started working on the project.

Unfortunately, this is where Sid’s dreams began to fall apart. His stage play, which emphasized the Jewish perspective of persecution and genocide, was rejected in favor of one that was penned by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Their version downplayed the Jewish perspective, making Anne’s struggles to find good in the world more universal and therefore more palatable to non-Jewish audiences of the time. Sid felt that he had been used and that a great injustice had been perpetrated against himself and the Jewish people. To add insult to injury, The Goodrich/Hackett version became a worldwide success and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Instead of letting go and accepting his disappointment, Sid spent the rest of his life involved in various lawsuits, letter-writing campaigns, and secret productions of his play, trying to get the world to acknowledge that his play was the better of the two. In doing so, he ruins friendships, nearly destroys his family and himself.

As expected, Mandy Patinkin was marvelous in his role as Sid Silver. He has the ability to draw an audience in, making his character at first likeable, then pathetic. We feel for him as his publisher tells him flat out that he is a failure, and we can understand his sense of injustice and religious persecution. We can wince at the ease in which Sid waives his rights in order to have to opportunity to write the play, at the stream of verbal agreements, and at his lack of knowledge of the workings of the publishing world. However, when his complaints turn to paranoid rants against other playwrights, specifically Lillian Hellman, and when we witness his own double dealing, lies to his wife, and contract breaking in order to get his play performed, we realize that this is a man who cannot accept disappointment and move on. He was a sad little man, ineffectually railing against the publishing world.

Other cast members played multiple roles. Hannah Cabell stood out as Miss Mermin, a publisher at Doubleday, and as Mrs. Silver, the women who nearly paid the ultimate price for her husband’s obsession. Stephen Barker Turner played various Doubleday executives and Mr. Matzliach, a friend in Israel who unwittingly produced Sid’s play, even though he was under contract to never do so.

I did not like the use of the marionettes in the play. Though ingenious in the execution by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Liam Hurley and Eric Wright, and understandable given the fact that part of Sid’s past included a failed puppet theater, I thought that using the marionettes was distracting. A marionette represented Anne Frank, but athough she fit well within the fantasy world of Sid and Tereska, I found their interactions with her somewhat disturbing. I thought it bordered on bad fan fiction to have Anne Frank speak like a modern-day young girl concerned with publishing issues or flirting, or eerily inserting herself into the Silver’s bed, in order to convince Tereska that she is indeed a part of their lives.

What was more puzzling was why at this instance, Anne’s voice was that of Mandy Patinkin, instead of the girl’s voice she had earlier? Another distracting use of the marionettes occurred when puppets instead of real actors portrayed an important and integral moment in Tereska’s life. Using actors, instead of reducing the incident to a bad dream, could have heightened the drama.

The end of the play came abruptly and with another surreal twist. We see Sid revisit Miss Mermin, and once again ask to be allowed to enter her successful publishing party. She hesitates, but Sid convinces her. She then realizes that this is a dream and asks if Sid had died. He tells her he is dying in Israel, and she smiles and lets him into her party.

This ending explains nothing, and reveals nothing. We do not see Anne at the end of the play, so we never learn if Sid’s issues with her have ever been resolved or if he is still obsessed. Sid spent his life in pursuit of validation as a playwright and it came to him only in a dream. It was sad ending for a sad little man. At least he could find peace in that dream.

Compulsion runs through February 28 at Yale Repertory Theatre. For tickets visit the website: Yale Rep.

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About CindyC

Cindy is a Connecticut writer and member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. She has had many changes in her life, but one thing has always remained the same: her life-long love of theater.