“Compulsion or the House Behind” opens with a scene in which the main character attempts to convince a publisher of the moral imperative to publish an unknown young girl’s diary. His only agenda, he earnestly declares, is “to help the teller to tell.”
It’s 1951, and the diary in question was written by Anne Frank. Thus begins a 30-year saga that revolves in ever tighter circles around the figure of Jewish American writer Meyer Levin and the way in which Anne Frank’s memoir of the Holocaust set his life on a single-minded and ultimately treacherous path.
Levin, who is styled as Sid Silver in Rinne Groff’s play at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, came across a French translation of Frank’s diary in the aftermath of World War II. Working with Anne’s father, Otto, he labored feverishly to help arrange its English publication by Doubleday. After writing a review of the book that helped bring it into prominence, he began working on a stage adaptation.
However, Otto Frank and the producers ultimately chose to back another version of the play, which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. In reaction, Levin became increasingly consumed with what he considered to be his rights to the material and spent years in litigation and bitter acrimony over what he termed the subversion of its message.
This production, directed by Hayley Finn, masterfully captures the writer’s descent into obsession while leaving motivation as an open question: Was Levin correct that Anne Frank’s story had been “de-Judaized” for public consumption or was he himself a full-blown narcissist using Frank’s material to boost the trajectory of his own career?
Mark Benninghofen as Silver gives a meticulously wrought performance, alternately wheedling and raging as he attempts to convince himself and those around him of his version of the truth.
Bethany Ford and Matt Rein play a variety of characters that orbit around him, including his wife, a series of increasing exasperated editors, an attorney and a friend.
The fourth actor in this claustrophobic drama is Anne herself. Embodied as a puppet, she haunts the stage much as she haunts Silver’s life, even appearing in bed between him and his wife in one poignant scene. It’s an inspired effect on Groff’s part, conjuring Frank’s vulnerability while underscoring the pervading question of the manipulation of her writing.
“Compulsion or The House Behind” isn’t an easy play to watch, but while it offers no ready answers, this production illuminates significant issues of the responsibility of authorship and what it really means “to help the teller to tell.”
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.