February 23, 2011

"Compulsion" Isn't Nearly Compelling Enough

Here are a few hard facts of modern theatergoing life. Times are tough.  Money is tight.  And so casts are small.  Sometimes too small. As is the case with Compulsion, the new play that opened at The Public Theater last Thursday night.

There are eight characters in Compulsion, which tells the story of Meyer Levin, the man who helped bring Anne Frank’s diary to the world (click here to read the original review he wrote for the New York Times Book Review) and then became obsessed with turning the young Holocaust victim's story into a play. Levin, renamed Sid Silver in this lightly-fictionalized telling of the story, is played by Mandy Patinkin.  Anne Frank is played by a marionette. Everyone else is played by just two other actors.

Patinkin, of course, has a personality big enough to fill a room by himself (his fans will be happy to know that he even manages to sneak a song into the show).  But this play, which deals with complex ideas and emotions, really needs more people on stage.  

Playwright Rinne Groff tries to camouflage the MIA by weaving in jokes about how difficult it is to tell some of the characters apart.  But what’s missing is still obvious.  And I have a sneaking suspicion that Compulsion might be better than these actor-stingy times allow it to be.

The play, directed by the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis (click here to read a Q&A with him), is basically a bio-drama that charts Levin’s life from the time that Doubleday decides to publish the diary to his death some 30 years later. That's fine because Levin’s life is filled with some dramatic stuff.  He helped to liberate the death camps after World War II. He wrote dozens of books including a bestselling novel about the infamous teen murderers Leopold and Loeb that was turned into a 1959 movie also called “Compulsion.” 

More to the point, however, Levin was an ardent anti-communist and an equally passionate Zionist. His belief that the Jewishness of Anne’s story had been watered down for the sake of more universal acceptance (an opinion shared and eloquently argued by Cynthia Ozick in a famous 1997 New Yorker article) is what fuels his anger and his obsession.

But little of this gets shown in Compulsion.  Instead, there’s lots and lots of exposition. Even Levin’s literary brawls with the playwright Lillian Hellman and legal battles with producer Cheryl Crawford, who put Anne’s story on Broadway, happen off-stage.  Major players in the Frank saga, like her father Otto, the only family member to survive the war, don’t appear at all. 

Knowing that she can have only a limited number of people onstage at   one time, what Groff gives us instead are lots of rants by the Levin character.  Few actors can rant as ferociously as Patinkin but a little of that can go a long way, particularly when there’s so little else to—pardon the bad punleaven it. 

Hannah Cabell takes on the dual roles of the young editor who shepherded the diary to publication and Silver’s long-suffering French wife. But she doesn’t have time to dig deep into either and distinguishes them primarily by the accent she affects for Mrs. Silver. Meanwhile, I had such a hard time keeping track of the male characters that Matte Osian plays that I misunderstood one scene completely until my husband K straightened it out for me over dinner after the show.

All of the characters, except for Silver, are awkwardly dressed and badly wigged by the usually masterful costume designer Susan Hilferty.  Maybe she was handicapped by having to accommodate for all the quick changes the actors have to make as they jump from one character to another.   

If that’s the case, it’s yet another reason for the Public to have hired a few more actors. Although it doesn't explain why Eugene Lee seems equally flummoxed, creating a set that includes one large section that is never even used. Wouldn't it have made more sense for that wasted money to go towards filling out the cast?

All of this puts a lot of pressure on the puppet.  So I’m happy to be able to report that it delivers.  The most affecting moments in Compulsion are those centered around the Anne marionette.  That could be because it was designed so gracefully by Matt Acheson.  Or that it is manipulated so sensitively by Emily Decola, Daniel Fay and Eric Wright.  Or maybe it’s just because it only had to play one character.

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