a theatre, film & pop culture review
To watch Mandy Patinkin is to become exhausted, almost immediately. On the stage, he engulfs it, as though compelled by an insatiable hunger. Every gesture is hyperbolic, every syllable softened by that strange, lilting falsetto until, when agitated, it becomes a kind of sing-songy gutteral growl. His methods aren’t subtle, but they are always compelling. One might even say they’re compulsive.
In the case of Rinne Groff‘s new play Compulsion at the Public Theater, Patinkin’s, shall we say, unique expressiveness aptly fits Sid Silver’s equally exhausting emotional extremes. Based on the Jewish-American author Meyer Levin’s fanatical desire to bring Anne Frank’s story to the world’s attention, Compulsion is the perfect showcase for a performer of Patinkin’s natural intensity. From the pushy, but good-intentioned advocate of a young girl’s personal story of horror, fear, and hope; to the possessive, purveyor of her words, Patinkin manages to balance distasteful monomania with excusable ambition and resentment. Groff’s work, at its best, insightfully traces how astute passion can easily turn to frightening, life-consuming obsession (at its worst, Compulsion is just another Holocaust story). Sid Silver’s journey of overeager ardor to extreme over-the-top fanaticism slowly bleeds into every aspect of his life, distancing him not only from his wife and children, but from reality as well.
This break from reality — and the fact that in Sid’s past he was a marionette-maker — is how we account for Sid’s frequent chats with the puppet Anne Frank. Upon entering the theatre, a half dozen of Matt Acheson‘s beautifully anthropomorphic creations are seen dangling from the rafters, but unfortunately, this is the most stage time these charming puppets receive under Oskar Eustis‘s direction. Sid speaks candidly with Anne — and only Anne — regarding his efforts in publishing her diary and the strong opposition to his penning its stage adaptation (including from her father, Otto, who was once his biggest supporter). He also touchingly confides his inability to let go of her and her story, to move on with his life and save his marriage; and though her face is hard and frozen, Anne’s fingers flutter, lightly touching his arm, or his leg, in sympathy. Voiced by Hannah Cabell (who also plays the junior editor who champions Silver only to turn her back on him as his obsession veers out of control), Anne is kittenish and quick-witted, putting Silver smartly in his place with her sage commentary.
While one of Compulsion‘s final scenes skillfully incorporates a moving dialogue between Anne and her brother (as voiced by Cabell and Patinkin), the play closes leaving us to wonder if the puppets weren’t entirely necessary theatrics — or from another perspective, an immensely under-utilized storytelling tool. Patinkin ferociously chews the scenery and the puppets delight — but neither succeeds in fully distracting from the otherwise run-o-the-mill script.