Review by Tulis McCall
(16 Feb 2011)
Rinne Groff loves history. Not the white bread kind of history that most of us accept – the fact that we still need a month to focus on America Black History and another one month to focus on American Women's History should tell you something – Groff likes the history that has been pushed off the game board. Her pervious play at The Public was Ruby Sunrise, a fictionalized account of the beginning of television. Groff also likes the early 1950's. Sunrise was partly set in 1952 and Compulsion begins in 1951.
Grof also has a soft spot for the under dog. In both plays she tells the tale of a person who missed the Give Credit Where Credit is due boat. Good for her.
What Groff also possesses is the desire to tell the whole story, and there she runs into the horrible truth that the whole story can never be told. It can barely be lived.
Compulsion gives us Sid Silver, (Mandy Patinkin) based on the real and true Meyer Levin, who, if tales are true, was responsible for Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl making it out of it's red plaid cover into the hands of half the world. Levin was also the author of the play based on the book that was passed over for the version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (and you thought it was only actors who got dumped!) If we are to go by this play, Silver was earnest but not so nice. He was permanently enraged by what happened to the Jews in WWII, even going so far as to object to the forward of Anne's book being written by Eleanor Roosevelt. When his version of Anne's story is rejected, Silver will not let go.
Compulsion is not quite the right word here. Obsession is more like it. Silver is obsessed with Anne so strongly that "not no one, not nothin'" will stay him from his path. Not the advice of people he trusted in the publishing industry, not the pleading of his wife, not the rage of his new friends in Israel. Nope, nope nope! Silver's obsession was pure and raw. He was fueled by it, and it by him. He was like an exposed tooth in the mouth of history. This kind of obsession makes life difficult and art nearly impossible. In spite of yeoman service by the cast, there is little wiggle room here. Once Patinkin reaches the rafters with rage, he must stay up there like the marionettes we only see once before the first act. There are sidebars where Hannah Cabel, as both Mrs. Silver and Miss Merwin of Doubleday, and Matt Osian, who plays several publishing executives as well as an Israeli theatre director are given the job of pumping a little oxygen into the room. But mostly there is only Silver and Anne.
To complicate matters, this Anne is personified by a marionette. This is an odd choice, and detracts from the story. No reason is given either, except the mention that Silver was a puppeteer at one time. And in spite of the fact that this marionette has roughly 20 strings and two handlers, she is clumsy in the extreme. If there was a point being made it was surely lost on me, as was half of this spectacular set stage right that was filled with objects promising a story I never saw.
All in all there is a great deal of sound and fury surrounding a simple and painful story. As the story developed I thought at first we were headed for a one act, and I could feel the arc of the piece. However, Ms. Groff elected to stretch out the story by decades and thus diluted her tale. By trying to tell us everything, Groff loses us. We end up being tired instead of inspired.
Groff tackles the big ones, and I salute her for that. Somewhere along the way I hope she will take that same courage and apply it to her writing style. Life is already a true story. The stage is where life is crafted into a tale. Groff trusts her gut to lead her to her subject; she can trust it to edit as well.
What the popular press said...
"Feels more dutiful than insightful. Its dialogue often has the ring of B-movie melodramas."
Ben Brantley for NY Times
For all of its poignance, "Compulsion" has an unsolvable problem at its heart
Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"One wishes there was more light to accompany the play's heat."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"It’s an intriguing yet flawed drama."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Not my idea of a fun time."
Michael Summers for Newsroom Jersey