Rinne Groff calls her new play at the Public Theater Compulsion, which is also the name of a 1956 bestseller about the Leopold and Loeb case, by the Chicago writer Meyer Levin (1905–1981). But Levin’s tome only gets passing mention in Groff’s script; its stage and film versions, which bore the same title, get none. Her drama centers on Levin himself, whose fame today owes less to his Compulsion than to a book he didn’t write: Anne Frank’s diary.
More precisely, Groff’s Compulsion centers on a Levin-like figure, a Jewish American writer named Sid Silver—also, as it happens, the name of a narrator-character in Levin’s Compulsion. Like Levin’s work, which has been praised for pioneering the “nonfiction novel” form that Capote and Mailer later employed, Groff’s play is an unstable, troubling mixture that merges documentary fact with pure fiction. Though it constantly fascinates, assessing it becomes a progressively trickier matter.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl is one of the universal books of the past half-century, translated into every major language and read yearly by thousands of schoolchildren. Initially published in Dutch in 1947, it had already gone through several printings when Levin, writing and filmmaking in postwar Europe, first learned of it. Like thousands before him and millions since, he was transfixed by both the book’s heartbreakingly simple candor and its prematurely dead young author’s accomplished style. Even more importantly for him, it made Anne’s experience the quintessence of what European Jews had just endured. He became obsessed with bringing the diary to a larger audience, through publication and dramatization; he offered his help to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, receiving provisional rights to make a stage adaptation for use once the diary had appeared in English.
Levin’s role in what followed became a source of controversy, legal and otherwise. The Diary turned into a worldwide triumph, its American success greatly helped by Levin’s encomium on the front page of the New York Times’ Sunday book review. A stage adaptation, not by Levin, and a 1957 film version spread Anne’s story even more widely. Her book acquired the immortality Levin had predicted for it. His own position, however, remained anomalous. That anomaly is the core of Groff’s play, in which Silver (Mandy Patinkin) begins as an evangelist eagerly trumpeting the news of the diary’s importance, but then becomes increasingly frustrated, sometimes to the point of violent derangement, as others involved with the work’s burgeoning success push him further and further aside.
Much of what Groff shows happening to Silver indeed happened to Levin: He didn’t get to write an introduction to the Diary (the publishers gave that job to Eleanor Roosevelt). His stage adaptation, initially approved by Otto Frank, was ultimately rejected. He alleged that the producer’s chosen adaptors, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, had not only misrepresented Anne’s work, but had used material invented by him. He sued, winning a small settlement. While the play swept awards and became a worldwide hit, he rejected the settlement and sued again.
Clearly, Levin was a crank. But he was also a writer of intelligence and substance, whatever his limitations as a playwright. (The Diary controversy paralleled a similar fight over the Broadway doctoring of his Compulsion script.) He perceived the irrational side of his passion for the Diary, titling the novel and memoir that he later wrote about the case, respectively, The
Fanatic (1964) and The Obsession (1974). Two subsequent book-length studies by scholars differ considerably on the
validity of Levin’s claims.
Groff struggles to compress these deep, tormenting matters into a small, intense work for three actors. (Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian play multiple roles, effectively.) But her narrow focus ultimately blights her efforts. Is Silver simply an egomaniacal writer who gets increasingly paranoid, or a Jewish hero battling genuine instances of anti-Semitism? Or if he’s both, how does Groff’s drama increase our understanding of his condition? Though Compulsion never fully explores this ambiguity, it does often crystallize it in striking stage images. Here, Groff is greatly helped by Oskar Eustis’s production, which uses multimedia, including puppetry, in a gentle, precise, supportive way. Patinkin, often notorious for overstatement, comes off measured and forceful here, his intermittent emotional excesses always strongly grounded in the role.