Theater Review: 'Compulsion or the House Behind' review: 'Anne Frank' story's backstory is compelling

By Ross Raihala for the Pioneer Press

Posted:   03/06/2013 12:01:00 AM 

The book "The Diary of a Young Girl," or as it's more popularly known "The Diary of Anne Frank," stands among the most widely read and celebrated works of the last century. The captivating play "Compulsion or the House Behind" tells the story behind "Anne Frank" while examining the often messy collisions between art and commerce and truth.

Staged by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, "Compulsion" follows the struggles of Jewish-American journalist/novelist Meyer Levin -- renamed Sid Silver for the play -- to see his version of Frank's story told to the masses.

Inspired by an early foreign edition of the book, Silver befriends Frank's father, Otto, and helps turn the English translation into a smash hit. Much more important to Silver, however, is the potential stage adaptation, which would bring Frank's story to an even wider audience.

Silver pens his own take, which keeps the horrors of the Holocaust front and center. The publishers and producers, however, prefer a softer, more sentimental and decidedly less Jewish version of the story. And the latter is the "Anne Frank" we know today, the one that won a Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize after its 1955 stage debut and picked up three Oscars for its 1959 big-screen adaptation.

As Silver, Mark Benninghofen is all about furrowed brows and an insistent tone. He plays Silver as a man so obsessed that he's not afraid to burn bridges along the way. At one point, another character calls him "a pain in the ass,"

and it's difficult not to agree, even if Silver's heart is obviously in the right place. Playwright Rinne Groff clearly isn't afraid of a sometimes-unlikeable hero.

In another gutsy move, Groff includes Anne Frank as an actual character in the piece, although she's portrayed by a marionette. Puppeteer Janaki Ranpura magically transforms Frank into a spectral onlooker, reminding the characters, and audience, that before the best-selling book and the lawsuits and the closed-doors deals, Anne Frank was an actual human being trying to survive under horrifying circumstances.

The first act follows Silver's increasingly frustrating battles with publishers, producers and even Otto Frank himself. It also sets up two key female relationships, both played by Bethany Ford. Her Miss Merman is a young, ambitious editor who relates to Silver as a fellow Jew but also craves her own success. Ford also portrays Silver's French wife, who grows increasingly weary of her husband's dogged pursuits. (In real life, Meyer Levin's wife, Tereska Torres, was a best-selling author in her own right, a fact barely mentioned in "Compulsion.")

The storyline flashes forward for the second act, and catches up with Silver living in Israel with his wife and fighting the temptation to see his "Anne Frank" staged, even if he has no legal right to the material. In the end, "Compulsion" sets up so many fascinating arguments, don't be surprised if you're still discussing the issues hours, or days, later.