Anne Frank’s diary may be the greatest paradox in modern literature. According to Jewish principles of goodwill, the most ideal exchange of charity is one in which neither the giver nor the receiver know each other’s identity. Only then is the transaction unconditional and pure.
We, of course, know who Anne Frank is. Her intimate expressions now belong to the world, a readership she would never know existed. Whether reading her diary, or watching the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, or viewing the 1959 film version, one can’t help but wish it were never written – that it never needed to be. But we are better for having met the young girl who wanted so badly to be in our midst.
It is not the most ideal gift to humankind, but it is a charitable one.
Rinne Groff’s play “Compulsion or The House Behind” adds a fascinating epilogue to Frank’s famous tome. A riveting production of the play opened Thursday evening at the Jewish Repertory Theatre. It centers around a man named Sid Silver, a writer based on the real-life Meyer Levin, who discovered Frank’s diary in France in 1946 and who lobbied Anne’s father Otto to pursue publishing rights in the United States.
But the business of publishing the diary overshadows Sid’s desire to retain its purity. He insists on making Frank’s Judaism the backbone of her story: preservation of the Jewish identity. But his publishers at Doubleday are hesitant to fracture a still-sensitive consumer base. (Latent strains of wartime anti-Semitism still linger stateside, even among allies.) When Sid’s version of the play adaptation is passed up for more bankable name(s) in Hackett and Goodrich, he first becomes skeptical, then furious, then paranoid, and ultimately litigious. His protection of Frank’s story is slipping away.
As Sid, Peter Palmisano does not rest in this fight. He gives a staggering performance, barely wasting time to come up for air. Not even in Sid’s unraveling middle age, spent proudly in the embattled State of Israel, does he give up. Palmisano dismantles Sid’s mental security without much grace but with equivalent commitment.
There are times in the first act when I wondered if he was the ideal fit for this role. This hypothesis never came at the expense of his skill, of course, but in his persona. We are more accustomed to seeing Palmisano as the one distributing bad news, gleefully and skillfully, than we are seeing him receive it. I wish he had begun his performance more withheld and humbled, saving his bravado and cockiness for later infestations. (Though maybe my concerns are instead with Sid.) He explains himself better as things progress: this is a sick man, egotistical or not. His self-delusion in Act Two explains his seeds of self-destruction in Act One.
Anne Roaldi plays two strong adversaries in Sid’s life, each one more pursuant (and correct) than the other. Miss Mermin is Sid’s editor who, at the same age as Frank, is a cutting reminder to him of her lost potential. Roaldi’s brassy interpretation of Mermin the Corporate Shill does not undercut her desire to support Sid’s noble intentions, even if he responds by questioning hers. Once he questions her Judaism, there’s no turning back.
Her role as Sid’s wife is also a complicated one. This is a tricky character to fit into this play, and Groff is sloppy about her act-one storyline. A much stronger act two solidifies his wife’s importance, arming her with piercing dialogue for a disheveled Sid. Roaldi shines in both roles, full of conviction and pathos. Ray Boucher portrays four men in and around Sid’s life, showing range and strength in both ancillary and supporting roles.
Groff’s script is often heavy handed, at times too poetic. But a unique call for puppets somehow tempers this. They offer both literal and metaphorical dimension to Sid’s vision of Frank. To him, Frank appears as his motivation and justification. To us, she represents the conflict between reality and portrayal. The puppets are the beautiful creations of local artisan Michele Costa, a performer in her own right whose work has never been less than enchanting. Even absent from their performance, Costa’s ethereal spirit is present.
A small program note that I can’t ignore, given the play’s themes: I wonder why the two puppeteers, Amelia Scinta and Ethan Coniglio, whose voices and movement give substantial character to these roles, are credited under the production staff and not the company of actors. Their work adds haunting power to this unlikely ghost story.
“Compulsion or The House Behind”
3 stars (out of four)
Drama presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville. Through April 24. Tickets are $10 to $38.
Info: jewishrepertorytheatre.com, 688-4114, Ext. 391.