NEW YORK (AP) -- It sounds like the set-up for a bar joke: What do Anne Frank, puppets and Mandy Patinkin have in common?
In the play "Compulsion," not much. All the ingredients here are first-rate — a fascinating exploration of a man's self-destructive nature, a remarkable Patinkin and the tender deployment of marionettes — but the combination is so bizarre as to distract from playwright Rinne Groff's work, which opened Thursday at The Public Theatre.
Patinkin plays Sid Silver, a Jewish-American novelist who in the play is one of the first champions of Anne Frank's diary. He befriends the dead girl's father, evangelizes for the diary's publication and adapts its story for the stage.
"I would lay down my life to serve this book and all that it represents to the Jewish people," Silver says at one point. "I would sacrifice everything and ask for nothing in return."
The book is published to acclaim — in no small part thanks to Silver's adoring review in The New York Times — but then things start to unravel. Silver sues when his stage script is bypassed and spends the rest of his life in a bitter fight with everyone over Anne's legacy — his wife, Frank's father, Broadway producers, lawyers, publishers. He is, quite frankly, obsessed. He sees himself as the guardian of Anne Frank's legacy.
Inspired by the story of Meyer Levin, "Compulsion" is gorgeously served by Patinkin, who plays the part with viciousness, tender self-consciousness, simmering self-righteousness, stubbornness and pathos. He adds understanding to a man whose single-mindedness would be simply too off-putting to engage.
"I'm afraid," Silver tells his wife during a fight over whether he needs medical help. "If these pills can work, if they can empty my head of this, then all these battles, everything I've struggled for, can't you see that all these years are nothing but a waste?"
Patinkin is aided by two very able supporting players — Hannah Cabell, who pulls double duty as both Silver's wife and a publishing executive, and Matte Osian, who plays four minor characters who each end up on the receiving end of Silver's wrath.
But Patinkin is not aided much by Anne Frank herself, a 3-foot-tall marionette who drifts down from the top of the proscenium to periodically visit Silver as the human actors supply her voice.
Shocking at first, the appearance of the puppet during a play about the pain of the Holocaust steadily morphs into something simply disturbing, and then, by turns, irritating. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public, has pulled from his actors wonderful performances and managed to juggle projections, puppets and humans with skill. Yet this is one trick too many.
The decision to add marionettes to this play is somewhat baffling. Groff introduces their use as a device by referring to Silver being a puppet-maker in his youth, and therefore they are, to him, a familiar, cherished memory.
But the marionette does not stay in Silver's mind: Others appear in a play-within-the-play and the puppet of Anne Frank interacts with Silver's wife — one scene has her bizarrely talking in bed with the mournful doll while Patinkin supplies her high-pitched voice from under the covers.
These wooden actors — manipulated craftily by Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay and Eric Wright — ultimately take away from an engaging work about obsession and Jewish identity that is acted in a way that's anything but wooden.
Someone got their wires crossed.
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