Compelled by Compulsion

Special Features   Compelled by Compulsion
 
Learn why Mandy Patinkin jumped at the chance to star in Rinne Groff's Compulsion at Yale Rep.
Mandy Patinkin in Compulsion
Mandy Patinkin in Compulsion Photo by Joan Marcus

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"I'd go to the ends of the earth to be in this play," Mandy Patinkin says. "And the good thing is I only have to go to New Haven."

Patinkin is talking about Rinne Groff's Compulsion, a fictionalized account of the novelist Meyer Levin's life-damaging obsession with Anne Frank, his overwhelming desire to bring her story to an American audience, and his failed attempt in the 1950s to adapt her diary for the stage. In Compulsion, at Yale Repertory Theatre through Feb. 28, Patinkin plays Sid Silver, who is based on Levin. The director is Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of the Public Theater.

Patinkin, a Tony winner for Evita and a nominee for Sunday in the Park with George, says that when Eustis sent him the script, "I read it that night, and the next day I told him there was no way he could do it without me."

It felt like a perfect fit, he says. "What the piece had to say hit a nerve. It has to do with something someone deeply feels, and the length to which an individual will go to be true to their beliefs, and what they will sacrifice for the cause, right to their death." Eustis says he thought "Mandy was so perfect for the role it was almost a question of how I could conceivably offer it to anyone else. He is so unafraid of being emotionally vulnerable and alive that at times he can be scary onstage."

Sid Silver's "own emotionality is such that he can't recognize boundaries," Eustis says. "He destroys social conventions. He doesn't recognize them. He's convinced his own feelings are more important." The character is "simultaneously monstrous and completely admirable. He behaves really badly. He refers to Otto Frank as his Hitler. But the audience has to stay on his side. There's something so warm and likable about Mandy that it feels like he's the perfect guy to do that."

Mandy Patinkin in Compulsion
photo by Joan Marcus

Patinkin says he is not building his portrayal from the real Levin. "That name isn't my character's name. I'm not doing somebody's life story. That's just part of the history and the source material that triggered Rinne to write this much larger creation. To me there's a universal nature to this piece that's not dependent on one man." Groff agrees, and adds that she couldn't find a way to start writing until she changed the character's name.

"It began when I read a book review in The New York Times in 1995 of 'An Obsession With Anne Frank,' by Lawrence Graver, about Levin's involvement with the diary," says Groff, whose play The Ruby Sunrise was directed by Eustis at the Public in 2005. "I ripped out the article because it fascinated me."

She did research and "tried to write it, but I couldn't. I didn't know how much I wanted to fictionalize."

Finally, about two years ago, "it started to come together. Everything that happens in the play is based on something that happened. So the play and the character are inspired by Levin. But Sid Silver is my creation."

Why was she interested? "I'm a Jewish girl. So I have that connection to Anne Frank. She's always been a figure, a strong presence, in the mythology of my life. My mother is Dutch. I've spent time in Amsterdam. I've gone to the Anne Frank house from the time I was a young girl. I understand that feeling of connection to her."

In fact, she says, "the heart of the play is a love of Anne Frank."

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