Mandy Patinkin’s voice holds the same national-treasure/national-joke status as a Julian Schnabel plate-painting or a Keith Haring mural. It’s a saccharine klaxon that can whipsaw from birdlike to brass band, a voice that, speaking or singing, harmonizes ego, devotion, and madness into a wall of sound. Director Oskar Eustis has boldly attached this instrument to Patinkin’s character, Sid Silver, in Rinne Groff’s ambitious new drama Compulsion.
Silver is an unconcealed facsimile of Meyer Levin, the twentieth-century novelist best remembered for his very ugly, very public legal battles over the stage rights to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Levin had a hand in popularizing the diary’s English-translation release in 1953, and received from Otto Frank, Anne’s father, a tentative verbal license to write a stage version. Levin did so, only to see his script rejected (or, as he saw it, suppressed) in favor of a “de-Judaized,” more universalist version, penned by Hollywood screenwriters — the canonical, Pulitzer-winning adaptation we’ve all absorbed, and which, unlike the diary, concludes with the line, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
Silver/Levin believed no such thing: He’d been present at the liberation of the death camps; for the rest of his life, he glimpsed crafty anti-Semites behind every door that was shut in his face. (Never given to understatement, he even compared Otto Frank to Hitler.) But Silver does believe in Anne — believes her to be a latter-day prophet, “the voice of six million vanished Jewish souls,” in fact. He exalts her to such saintly heights, she can only be manifested onstage as a puppet. (Matt Acheson’s clammy, corpselike marionettes, always hovering somewhere in the rafters of Eugene Lee’s Auschwitz-inflected set, are profoundly disturbing, even — no, especially — when their presence skirts the edge of dark comedy.) Groff (The Ruby Sunrise), a tremendously witty and intelligent writer whose intellect can sometimes outpace itself, is probing and picking at some major pieties of identity politics: The play’s most unsettling and effective scene arrives in the second act, when Silver’s wife (Hannah Cabell, ably playing all the women in Silver’s life — all but one) finds Puppet Anne in her bed, nestled between her and her husband. (In this scene and this scene only, Anne speaks in Silver’s voice.) Groff binds up Silver’s mission with Zionism and Israel, where Silver flees after his legal defeats in New York (“I wanted my obsession to fester here in the desert heat”). She even juxtaposes a production of his unlicensed Diary play against the backdrop of the Six Days War.
But, as character, Silver is, if anything, even less self-aware than Levin — who at least knew he was crazy, even if he remained certain he was right. And, in the end, Compulsion, while endlessly piquant, shares some of its main character’s impenetrability. Silver’s a figure of unknowable, unmanageable devotion to his cause, a solid totem of ethnic pride, victimology, hubris, and heroism. Groff isn’t so clumsy as to make a tragic hero of him, but in the end, he seems to defeat even his author — she ends on a note of profound ambiguity, a call to reconsider a dismissed puppet of twentieth-century identity politics. But Groff’s careful, perhaps too careful, to supply no guidelines for how we should consider Silver (or Levin). For all her brave provocations, we can feel her stepping wide of contemporary debates over neoconservatism, over Israel, over the limits of diplomacy and “realism.” There are gaps here, gaps made all the more palpable by the vast, darkened lacunae Eustis leaves in his staging. (Most of the set is barely used, to an almost distracting extent.)
What we’re left with is Silver, and Patinkin is the perfect choice for the role — perhaps too perfect. That voice, that self-regarding, self-effacing, self-immolating voice. He can’t turn it down. By the end, he’s practically singing his dialogue. It’s a sound that haunts us long after we’ve left the theater, but it is a sound, rather than a sentence or even an articulate sentiment. Compulsion is the beginning of a conversation; I look forward to seeing it continued in Groff’s future work.