We don’t go to the theater much since our friend Arthur moved south, but Robin loves Mandy Patinkin, so tonight we went to see him in Compulsion at the Berkeley Rep. They got the star worship out of the way quickly … Patinkin just walked onstage to begin the play, giving everyone a chance to cheer Inigo Montoya, after which we all settled in. Patinkin buried himself in his part (a semi-fictional recreation of Meyer Levin, who wrote a novel, play and movie based on Leopold and Loeb called Compulsion and who had a long, complicated relationship to Anne Frank’s diary), but to my eye, it was his interaction with the two other actors that wiped away the “look, it’s a big star” feeling … soon enough, we were watching three fine actors instead of a star and two fine actors.
The most interesting part of the play was the use of marionettes. I don’t know much about them, and haven’t seen them live more than once or twice, so it was fascinating me to see the remarkable way they were manipulated to not only appear as Anne Frank and others, but to be acting.
Patinkin’s character, called Sid Silver in the play, gradually goes over the top with his compulsive desire to get Anne Frank’s story told the “right” way. By “right,” he means to emphasize the Jewishness of Frank, and to connect her story as a Jew to the larger story of Jews during the Holocaust and forward into the creation of Israel. His criticism of the play based on the book, which is taken out of his hands and given to others (it won Tonys and a Pulitzer as a play, and three Oscars as a film), is directed to what he sees as the burying of Frank-as-Jew in favor of a more “universal” message. The play Compulsion insists, as well, on its identity within Jewish culture … it doesn’t make many efforts towards the universal, assuming, like Sid Silver, that the universal should come to the specific Jewish culture, rather than the culture giving way to the universal. But Silver’s obsession results in an unhappy man with an unhappy wife, beating his head against the wall unsuccessfully. If The Diary of Anne Frank is taken as oddly uplifting, Compulsion is the opposite, even as it ends by lifting the diary’s famous line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”