Sunday, February 20, 2011

A New Page in Anne Frank's Diary

Mandy Patinkin and a marionette in Compulsion.

Here's a piece I did about Rinne Groff, whose new play Compulsion, is now running Off-Broadway at the Public Theater. The cast includes Mandy Patinkin and an Anne Frank marionette:

Rinne Groff can't remember a time when she didn't know Anne Frank. The daughter of a mother who was both Dutch and Jewish, she's had copies of The Diary of Anne Frank from the time she was a child. Talking by phone about the Public Theater's production of Compulsion, her play about an actual writer obsessed with adapting Anne's diary for the stage, Groff, whose first name is pronounced "Rinna," casts her eyes to a bookshelf stocked with different editions of the source material. Some were part of her collection even before the Amsterdam teen who hid from the Nazis for two years became part of Groff’s professional life.

"I can see a paperback that is very old that was mine, a new version of the diary that just says 'the definitive edition,' which was something my mom gave to me because she wanted to share it with me," says Groff, 41, herself the mother of two young girls. "And a few years ago something came out called 'the revised critical edition' that I bought when I was already working on this project."

Sharing space on that shelf is a rare copy of Meyer Levin's stage adaptation, which Groff's husband purchased for her on eBay for about $50. That script, which Levin boldly self-published after his play was presented in Israel in 1966, despite not having the legal rights to Anne's story, continued to haunt him until his death in 1981 at age 75. He railed against the official Pulitzer Prize-winning stage version for not authentically capturing Anne's voice and sought to win recognition for his, alienating colleagues and friends in the process.

Levin felt he was the ideal candidate to adapt Anne's diary for the stage, since he helped to get it published in the U.S. But he was passed over by producer and Group Theatre cofounder Cheryl Crawford in favor of Hollywood screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, whom Levin felt downplayed Jewish elements of the story. His destructive obsession stirred Groff's passions 16 years ago when she read a review of a nonfiction book about Levin and Anne Frank.

"Anne Frank was definitely the hook, but it struck other chords with me," says Groff, whose previous Public Theater production, The Ruby Sunrise, dealt with how to tell the story of a would-be television pioneer. "It brushes up against so much great American theater history, it's also a backstage saga about a writer trying to get something on. Then there are larger cultural issues that are raised as to who has the right to control something and how are those rights exercised, and if there are differences morally, it opens up the notion of what should be in the public domain."

Yet even though Compulsion is a true story, Groff wasn't entirely comfortable depicting real-life characters, so in her play Levin (played by Mandy Patinkin) is called Sid Silver, the nom de plume he gave himself in his historical fiction novel, also called Compulsion, about the Leopold and Loeb trial. Another dramatic element Groff culled from Levin's life was his work with marionettes, which drop in and out of the action. Well before Anne Frank became part of his life, Levin designed marionettes and ran a puppet theater in Chicago, staging productions that included O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. Groff's Compulsion opens with a marionette Anne writing in her diary.

That device also gives rise to the image of Levin as puppeteer, desperate to have a hand in controlling Anne and her story. Compulsion questions whether his motives are selfless (to give a voice to all the Jews who died in the Holocaust) or selfish (to attach his name to the work of a writer destined to endure the ages). Silver’s conviction to his vision is as admirable as his abrasiveness and tunnel vision are off-putting, but in spite of everything Groff believes he was good at heart, a man fighting forces that wanted to "de-Judaize" Anne.

"I have great sympathy for Sid Silver, I have great love for Sid Silver," she says tenderly. "His way of being in the world is a flawed way of being, but it's also very earnest. He stops being able to see accurately because he is so interested in not having his vision perverted. I always like to emphasize is that he is buoyed by love. And it's a romantic love in a way. He fell in love and would do anything, go to the ends of the earth, because of that love."