THE BASICS: COMPULSION OR THE HOUSE BEHIND, a play by NYC based (and Guggenheim Fellowship winner) Rinne Groff presented by Jewish Repertory Theatre, directed by Saul Elkin, stars Peter Palmisano, Anne Roaldi, and Ray Boucher along with two puppets made by Buffalo’s own Michele Costa with puppeteers Amelia Scinta and Ethan Coniglio. Published run dates have it through April 24, Thursdays at 7:30, Saturdays at 4 & 8, and Sundays at 2, but note that there is no show on Saturday, April 23 (the first day of Passover) so two Wednesday shows have been added: April 13 & 20 at 7:30. It’s at the intimate but extremely comfortable Maxine & Robert Seller Theatre housed inside the (“Amherst”) Jewish Community Center, 2640 North Forest Road, Getzville, NY 14208. If Getzville sounds like a galaxy far, far away, by using some combination of routes 90, 190, 290, and 990 to exit 3, it’s actually only 18 to 22 minutes from almost anywhere in Buffalo. (688-4114 x391). www.jewishrepertorytheatre.com. Runtime is 2 hours, with one 15 minute intermission. Candy and bottled water available for $1.00 per item.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Having read about five different thumbnails of this play and noting that they all seem to copy each another freely, I am not going to pretend to be unique here, so Saul Elkin’s “Director’s Note” in the program will suffice, with a few of my own comments in brackets: “The principal character in Compulsion or The House Behind, Sid Silver, is modeled on the writer Meyer Levin who in fact first came across ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ in 1946, in France. Levin contacted Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, and lobbied to have the Diary published in the United States, and wrote a review for the NY Times Book Review that helped to make the book a best seller in this country. Levin [with verbal approval from Otto Frank] adapted the Diary for the stage but his version was passed over by Broadway producers in favor of the [less “Jewish” and more sentimental] version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, a version that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and become and award-winning film. Levin was determined to see his stage version produced somewhere, sometime. He was so angry that he sued Otto Frank [and at one point in the play compared him to Hitler]. Meyer’s obsession, and his ‘compulsion’ to have his stage version of the ‘Diary’ produced is what drives the fictitious Sid Silver, and this play.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION
First off, the actors are superb veterans of Buffalo stages. However, because they so often get overlooked, I have recently started my reviews with comments on some of the unsung production elements. The costumes by Kari Drozd are simple and effective, and given that actor Ray Boucher plays four roles and Anne Roaldi plays two, must very quickly adapt. Perhaps the finest touch was actor Peter Palmisano’s change from three-piece suit (in NYC) to bowling shirt (nowadays called a “Charlie Sheen shirt”) in his retirement in Israel.
There is a strong symbiosis between the set (Nathan Elsener), the lighting (Brian Cavanagh), the sound (Tom Maker) and the brief projections (think silent movie) providing location information. Date and location information which is superimposed on scenes seems to be more and more popular in television and movies and it felt natural here, where the very short, intense scenes move quickly one after another.
Without a doubt, though, the star of the show is Anne Frank, as represented by a beautiful Michele Costa designed puppet.
Peter Palmisano plays Sid Silver wonderfully as a man on a mission who has to “keep it together” when dealing with corporate types (at the Doubleday publishing house). We’ve all been in that role ourselves when dealing with a bureaucracy, whether it’s the cable company, a government office, a bank, you name it. We smile, cajole, pretend to agree, when inside we are screaming “Don’t you people understand what I’m trying to say here?” Unfortunately for Sid, this project is so big and all-consuming that the veneer of sociability quickly wears thin, and so does the patience of everyone who deals with him, publishers, friends, and even his long suffering wife.
What is so impressive with Palmisano is that, as we move through the play, he can tone it down, and we believe that the character has finally resolved his issues, and then, wham, his compulsion bursts forth, stronger than ever. To be able to control those different levels of intensity over a two-hour play is the mark of a master performer.
Almost as compelling is award winning Anne Roaldi in two roles. As the young publishing assistant Miss Mermin she is perky, but slowly becomes more cagy as she grows in experience, both in publishing and in handling Sid Silver’s outbursts. Nice character development there. Then, as she alternates to play Sid’s wife, Roaldi has to age about 20 years, and become much more world (and Sid) weary. And that’s all done with minimal costume changes.
Veteran actor Ray Boucher’s characters didn’t seem as well delineated, but given that he plays four men, all about the same age, again with minimal costume changes, I’m not sure if that’s a problem that can be, or even needs to be, fixed. It might be a script problem; it might be a direction problem. But Boucher does the best with what he’s given.
Without a doubt, though, the star of the show is Anne Frank, as represented by a beautiful Michele Costa designed puppet. The publicity photo does not do it credit at all, you have to see it on stage, in action. It’s stunning. And it is manipulated and beautifully voiced by Amelia Scinta, a UB Theatre graduate who also sings with the very polished Vocalis Chamber Choir.
Full Disclosure: I held off on writing this review for a few days since the opening night March 31, because I was conflicted. How could I possibly compare the superb performance of one of my favorite actors, Peter Palmisano, with that of a puppet? I mean, the puppeteer didn’t even get a cast credit. She’s listed along with the crew. Was I nuts? Then, in searching for a biography of the playwright, I stumbled upon the NY Times review of the play starring Broadway legend Mandy Patinkin: “Only a performer of monumental presence can withstand the theatrical typhoon that is Mandy Patinkin. So hats off to the frail-looking, child-size marionette who walks away with ‘Compulsion,’ the straight-line bio-drama by Rinne Groff, starring Mr. Patinkin at gale force.” (Ben Brantley in NY Times, 2/17/2011).
So Palmisano is not alone. By the way, the other puppet is Peter Van Daan (the nebbish teenage boy also in hiding with Anne Frank) very ably played by Ethan Coniglio, who attends Kenmore West. He’s not a strong character in the Diary nor is he here, but he is an important character in this play, because he represents a sort of lazy, non-aware, not religious, not Jewish-enough character to contrast with Anne. Sid Silver wants to carry that contrast even further, turning Anne into a Zionist crusader. So, in a way, what Anne is (more passionate, aware, and involved) to Peter, Sid (more compulsive, paranoid, and over-involved) is to everyone around him.
This would be a four-Buffalo review, with one glaring problem. The (goofy in my opinion) foreign accents that the actors take on. Why? There wasn’t the usual talk-back on opening night Thursday, so I didn’t get to ask. It was not very clear to me what the accents were. For example, Sid’s wife is French, we get it. But whether it was a bad French impersonation, or a very subtle, historically informed accent I don’t know. Either way, why?
Here’s the telling part. The voice of Anne Frank did not have a heavy accent. It wasn’t “Buffalo girl next door” but simply a nice, measured, neutral American voice. So if the character who haunts every minute of the play isn’t accented, why should anyone else be?
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!