Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Compulsion at Yale Rep

NOTE: This is a review of a play that officially opens tomorrow. The play, a co-production of the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Public Theater (in New York), and the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is scheduled to tour nationally. Because the performance I attended was technically a preview of the show’s world premiere run, it is possible—likely—that changes will be made (gawd, I hope so) before tomorrow’s opening or at least before it reaches a stage near you, wherever you are.

Oy! Where to begin
Okay, I may as well tell you what the play is about, first. Meyer Levin’s book, Compulsion, the title of which was borrowed for this unrelated play, was the first nonfiction true crime novel (about the Leopold and Loeb murder case), the precursor to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, according to the Wikipedia article on Levin.

Levin was a journalist and a prolific writer. One of the defining moments of his life was his witnessing, as a war correspondent, the liberation of concentration camps in Europe at the end of the Second World War. Today we would say that the behavior portrayed in the play was the manifestation of post-traumatic stress disorder, but that diagnosis wasn’t around in the 1950s.

The doppelgänger Levin created for himself in his writing was Sid Silver. The playwright, Rinne Groff, collated a set of events in Levin’s life, as recounted in books by Levin; by Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres; by Lawrence Graver; and by Ralph Melnick (see the Wikipedia link), and gave them to the character Sid Silver. So the play is ostensibly a dramatization of the nonfiction novel (form invented by Levin) of Levin’s life, told through the alter ego Levin invented, using a title Levin applied to a book about something else altogether. Nicely recursive, don’t you think? Derivative, too.

The outline
The play is about Levin’s obsession (not really a compulsion, I think) to bring The Diary of Anne Frank to the United States, first as a book and then as a drama. Anne Frank became the medium through which he understood his purpose in the world. Because of ideological and artistic differences with others (Otto Frank among them), he entered into a series of legal battles the narration of which constitutes the heart of the play. Well, what’s wrong with that? I’m not saying there wasn’t conflict or dramatic tension, but I am saying the play consisted almost entirely of exposition. Levin’s story—Groff’s synthesis of Levin’s story—would have made an interesting magazine article. In a good piece of journalism in the New Yorker or Harper’s, I expect exposition. In a play I want more.

The production
Three actors cover seven main and a few incidental roles. In addition, a crew of three puppeteers handle the ghosts of Anne Frank, Otto Frank, and Miep Gies, as well as the play-within-a-play roles consisting of an assortment of actors playing Anne Frank, Otto Frank, and Miep Gies. There’s that recursion thing again, a trick Groff seems fond of.

The play dragged. A third to a half of the scenes could be cut. In particular, the last three scenes were merely maudlin and added nothing to the play—not even a graceful denouement. If the playwright and director have any mercy, these scenes will be gone before the New Haven run is over. But the script has other problems aside from length. At the start of the second act, we’re treated to one of the characters entering the set, walking to the front of the stage to face the audience, and addressing the audience directly with superfluous narration of biographical details we don’t need to know. The whole show is so ponderously expository that it’s a wonder the actors could spit out the lines most of the time.

Moving on…
Hannah Cabell, as the publisher Miss Mermin and as Sid Silver’s wife (based on Levin’s wife, Tereska Torres) was superb.

Stephen Barker Turner, playing a variety of publishing executives and lawyers, who somehow all looked and acted alike, as well as Silver’s friend Mr. Matzliach, did the best he could. Mr. Thomas, Mr. Harris, and Mr. Ferris were all stereotyped WASPs, and Turner played them all pretty much the same way—as flat as they were written. I wasn’t the only one who was confused. At one point Silver called Ferris Harris and was corrected, garnering a chuckle from the audience. I honestly couldn’t tell if the error and correction were in the script or a fluffed line and an quick save.

Mandy Patinkin played Levin aka Silver. I always liked Patinkin in Chicago Hope. And the choice to play the Silver character is completely consistent with everything else I’ve seen him do. But…I dunno. Maybe he was just having a bad night. Or maybe the script, staging, and direction were really that bad. At best, I’d characterize his performance as uneven. He was on stage for nearly the entire play, and that’s a lot of material to master. Still, um, well, he’s a professional actor and I’m an amateur reviewer; so maybe he was just coming from somewhere I don’t understand at all. Or maybe he rose from his sick bed to be a trouper. Or something.

There were moments when I couldn’t tell if Patinkin was pausing for effect or had gone up on his line. If the pause was for effect, the effect wasn’t one I could identify. His rants, his moments of contrition, even his amorous moments with his wife (everyone keeps their clothes on in this one, for a change) all seemed rote, formulaic, phoned in. But I readily acknowledge that Patinkin may have signed on to the project despite a weak script and that he may be making the best of a bad situation. So I don’t want to lay the blame on him.

The puppeteers did everything that was asked of them and did so pretty well. This was straightforward marionette work consistent with the plodding expository nature of the script. No imagination was called for or in evidence.

The set is worth noting. I’ve seen great plays, okay plays, and stinkers at Yale Rep; but one saving grace of even the worst of them has always been the set design. With the resources of the Yale School of Drama, Yale School of Architecture, and Yale School of Art to draw on, the Rep is a showcase for brilliant, imaginative designers. As noted above, though, Compulsion is a co-production of three theaters, with a name star. I suspect this had something to do with the choice of Eugene Lee as the scenic designer. Lee “has been the production designer at Saturday Night Live since 1974,” according to the program notes, and “was recently inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York.” Uh-huh. Yawn. I think the set was a castoff from SNL, or else it was sketched on a napkin and faxed in. Blecch.

Don’t feel compelled to see this one. But read other reviews after the show actually opens. Maybe it will get better.

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