Compulsion or obsession? While it might seem unreasonable to quibble over the title of the new play on view at the Public Theatre, reasonability is at the core of this play’s raison d’être. My desk top dictionary defines compulsion as “an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation” while obsession is described as a “preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.” So the first is an impulse to act irrationally while the second is a fixation on something.
Playwright Rinne Groff explains the origins of her play’s title in a program note. Compulsion is modeled after the “non-fiction novel” that the play’s subject, Meyer Levin, is credited with pioneering in his most renowned published work: Compulsion, the 1956 fictionalized retelling of the 1924 “crime of the century” – the horrific Leopold and Loeb kidnapping and murder carried out by two well-to-do Jewish boys from respected families in Chicago. In the preface to that novel, Mr. Levin notes that “I have followed an actual case, are these, then actual persons? I follow known events. Some scenes are, however, total interpolations, and some of my personages have no correspondence to persons in the case in question.”
Just as Mr. Levin renamed Leopold and Loeb as Steiner and Strauss in his novel, Ms. Groff borrows the name of the narrator from that novel to “fictionalize” Meyer Levin as Sid Silver in her play. So the play’s title is more of a reflection of the playwright’s methodology than it is a description of the central character. Still, the title provides a key to understanding the play’s story and identifying its shortcomings.
Mr. Levin was an early champion of the then unknown diary of a young girl who was to become a symbol of the Holocaust: Anne Frank. While the exact details of his direct relationship to the publication of the diary in the United States are in question, he did have a very direct relationship with Otto Frank, Anne’s father, and had a verbal agreement with Mr. Frank to turn Anne’s history of confinement in an Amsterdam attic into a play. Levin felt that converting the work into a theatrical experience (and, presumably a movie) would insure that Anne’s story reached a wide audience.
By the early 1950s, Mr. Levin had achieved moderate success as a “Jewish novelist.” And, like so many Jews who lived through the horrors of the Holocaust “in abstentia” (i.e., separated by oceans, nations, and time from their kindred people), he deeply felt a personal mission to teach the lessons of that greatest of tragedies to Jews and gentiles. He also harbored a manic suspicion that Anne’s story and its meaning would be distorted, secularized, and romanticized without the knowing hand of a committed and sensitive Jew guiding the development of the stage play.
The backdrop for Ms. Rinne’s play, the Jewish- American world of the 1950s, was complex and fraught with real and perceived dangers. Anti-Semitism has always been a underlying thread in American culture, even as Jews rose to positions of power and wealth, in fact, fed by Jews rising to power and wealth. Guilt, real and perceived, marked Jews who were assimilating into the “American way of life.” And then there was the McCarthy effect, identifying Jews (and non-Jews) whose working-class affiliations with leftist causes during the 1920s and 30s made them the target of oppression as the cold war emerged as America’s rightful cause. Against that backdrop, Meyer Levin decided that he was the sole keeper of the faith that Anne Frank symbolized and his obsession is the focus of Compulsion.
Why obsession and not compulsion? It’s a matter of responsibility and the play’s dramatic impact is inextricably tied to the difference. Levin (a.k.a Silver) knows the American literary world of the 1950s, but views it with suspicion and prejudice, sometimes well founded, others times not. He believes that publishing is controlled by anti-Semites and the upwardly mobile Jews in the industry are all too willing to sacrifice their religious identity for success. Only true Jews can see the “eternal light,” in Mr. Silver’s view. So, when he discovers Frank’s diary has been acquired by a major American publishing house and the lead editor is an upwardly mobile “Jewess,” it becomes his mission to protect Anne’s legacy.
Levin established a relationship with Otto Frank in France and believed that he was to be
Frank’s would-be agent in the U.S. only to discover that Frank had sold the rights to the diary to the American publisher through a legal representative who had no interest in Levin’s plans for a stage adaptation of the work. Initially, it appears that he will be contracted to do the adaptation, but, while he is recognized as a skilled novelist, he is now in the world of the theatre where producers and directors govern and, in the 1950s, Hollywood frequently had a hand in “developing properties” that might be transferred to film.
Soon it becomes clear that Levin’s recently drafted stage version would not be produced on Broadway (or anywhere else) and the rights to adapt the diary had been signed over to two Hollywood script writers. This starts Levin’s 30 year obsession and that is the sole focus of Ms. Rinne’s play. She strips away most of the details of the story: playwright Silver/Levin wins a court ruling regarding his claim of plagiarism against the successful authors of The Diary of Anne Frank, but we are given virtually none of the details of either side’s case. Silver signs a settlement that essentially forbids him to ever produce his version of the play, yet he continues to believe he has a “divine right” to shed light on the message of Anne’s writing. Interestingly, while Silver is clearly driven by the portrait of waste and barbarism that Anne’s story represents, the one line from the diary quoted multiple times in this play is the famous testament to innocence and hope: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.”
Much of the balance of the play has Levin/Silver driving his wife, a veteran of the French resistance and a respected author in her own right, mad with his inability to let Anne and his play go. The production deftly uses marionettes to represent Anne as a part of Silver’s consciousness – early in his career, Levin was an accomplished puppeteer. Unfortunately, the wife’s frustration mirrors the audience’s. It is not an “irresistible impulse to act” that governs Mr. Silver; it is a “preoccupation with a fixed idea” that Silver and only Silver holds the truthful portrayal of Anne Frank and her legacy. This man clearly is obsessed and as a portrait of the difficulty of tolerating the obsessed, the play has its moment. But it really has little more to say about the nature of obsession or the blurred lines between reality and imagination that accompany this weakness. And there is even less about the long-term impact of Anne’s writings, even though Ms. Groffe’s play covers over a quarter century during which the diary became a core work of 20th century writing.
Ms. Rinne appears to carefully avoid any suggestion that Levin is not fully in control of his actions as might be expected of someone under the influence of compulsion. If Levin is the victim of compulsion, he escapes responsibility for his acts; he becomes, like the German people of Hitler’s regime, the perpetrators of “an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation.” He must be obsessed; he must have a “preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.” We see that in every scene of this play, but that is not enough to justify the play’s two and half hour portrait of Levin’s passion. There are no connections between Levine and his subject; no suggestions that he is locked in a prison camp of his own design; and even with his easy accusations of a world rigged against him, Ms. Rinne is careful to include enough details about that world to insure that the audience does not enter into Levin’s distorted reality. So we left with a poor “rat in a maze,” unable to escape from walls he built himself. That’s interesting for a while, but not for a full evening, especially since the situation is so ripe with potential.
The production at the Public Theatre is quite good. Mandy Patinkin is a perfect choice for this role. So frequently, this actor’s veneer of obsessive-compulsive stylization seems imposed on characters; in Compulsion, it is the character. But Mr. Patinkin is given so little to work with that it’s difficult to fault his performance – the play only shows us the external manifestation of his condition and the audience therefore sees another performance with rage and passion but little insight into their source. Hannah Cabell and Matte Osiah play a variety of characters effectively. It’s not really clear whether these multiple role assignments are supposed to carry meaning or just reduce the cost of production, but they do justice to each character and are greatly assisted by the costumes and makeup. Oskar Eustis direction is equally effective even if the play gives him very little to work with in terms of an arc of action.