BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
OFF BROADWAY REVIEW
Spending over two hours in the company of a raging monomaniac with an Anne Frank obsession is not my idea of a fun time, especially when he's played with all stops out by Mandy Patinkin blazing away in his most furious mode.
Nevertheless, Patinkin's admirers may thrill at times to his inflamed performance in "Compulsion," a fictionalized account of writer Meyer Levin that opened Thursday at the Public Theater.
Certainly Rinne Groff's new drama and director Oskar Eustis' handsome production have their striking moments. A life-size marionette of Anne Frank, ghostly in her little red dress and yellow cardigan, is an integral figure in Groff's look at a man possessed with telling the Holocaust martyr's story his own way.
A well-respected writer, Levin was among the first to recognize the value of Anne's diary and befriended her father while booming the news about her saga in the early 1950s. After his stage adaptation of the diary was rejected by its producer in favor of the Pulitzer-winning drama we know today, Levin spent a good part of his remaining life bitterly denouncing the piece and its various makers.
That's the 30-year path for Groff's two-act play, which names its central character Sid Silver and no doubt fictionalizes some of the actual events and people in Levin's existence. While overwritten in patches, the drama presents an absorbing study of a brilliant man undermined by his noblest intentions.
The choleric Silver is a perfect role for the ever-emotional Patinkin, who fearlessly dives off the deep end with him. Looking fit and handsome, showcasing his expressive musical voice, Patinkin depicts Silver as an increasingly paranoid crackpot whose obsessive ways nearly wreck his life. I wish the director had tamped down a bit Patinkin's virtuosic fires, but many viewers probably will enjoy his excessive heat.
Enhanced by designer Susan Hilferty's costumes, Hannah Cabell and Matte Osian believably portray the various women and men affected by Silver's personal crusade. Cabell is most winning as Silver's long-suffering French wife, who first brought Anne's diary to his attention and lived to be made miserable for it.
Further, they and Patinkin give voice to several marionettes depicting Anne and other characters. Groff's imaginative use of the puppets often lends a dreamy quality to the drama — especially in a nightmarish scene when Anne creepily pops up in bed between Silver and his wife.
Just like the play and Patinkin's emoting, designer Eugene Lee's expansive setting is effective but proves too busy at certain points. In spite of everything, Eustis' artful production remains really good at heart.
"Compulsion" continues through March 13 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Call (212) 967-7555 or visit www.publictheater.org.