Theater J’s Johanna Gruenhut explains why ‘compulsion’ matters now

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The constraint or the house behindthe poignant play making its DC debut at Theater J is loosely based on a scandal that rocked the literary and theatrical worlds in the 1950s.

The scandal concerned The Diary of Anne Frank, a bestseller followed by a resounding success on Broadway. Both were supposed to be based on the diary entries of a teenage girl, hiding from the Nazi occupation in a secret annex in Amsterdam.

It was rumored that the book had been rewritten, eliminating anything deemed “too Jewish” by the powers that be, who were, at the time, predominantly Protestant and male. The young editor who picked up the book was neither, but she shared the beliefs of her bosses.

As a result, the Anne Frank whose Diary dominated Broadway – which won the Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 – was transformed into a symbol of sunshine and hope that had little to do with the Holocaust.

In other words, stripped of its Jewish identity, the Broadway adaptation of Anne Frank has been rendered as lifeless as the puppet who plays her in Compulsion.

And that’s the point. Compulsion is not about Anne Frank – who is depicted as a puppet, the size of a six-year-old child – but about those pulling the strings, manipulating the diary that was left behind when its author been sent to one of the dead camps.

The use of puppets was an integral part of Compulsion when it first opened at the Public Theater in New York in 2010. Joanna Gruenhut, who is now Associate Artistic Director of Theater J, was then working at the Public.

Director Johanna Gruenhut. Photo by Eli Flombaum.

“When I learned that I was going to direct Compulsionthe first thing I did was call Matt Acheson,” Gruenhut told me in a pre-show phone interview.

Acheson, a world famous puppeteer, had created the original dolls, now on permanent display at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. “I asked him to do it again and he accepted.”

The puppets, she added, are extremely difficult to make. “And pulling the strings is even harder.” Fortunately, Acheson and puppeteer Eiren Stevenson were available to do the job.

Paul Morella as Sid Silver with Anne Frank puppet and puppeteer Matt Acheson in ‘Compulsion or the House Behind’. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Besides the puppets, Compulsion boasts a superb cast. Paul Morella is magnificent as an infuriating and ultimately repulsive protagonist. Kimberly Gilbert fulfills a double role as the woman of his life: the editor who is in charge of the Diary and flirtatiously drags him in, and the woman, a sassy but literate sexpot, who tries to drag him away. Marcus Kyd plays so many roles so convincingly that I, like my colleague John Stoltenberg, was sometimes unaware that the characters were all inhabited by the same person. (Click here for John’s excellent review.)

I wondered what triggered the decision to hold the revival in 2022. Why now? I asked.

Why not? Gruenhut responded, explaining that the play was originally scheduled for Spring 2020, but COVID and the lockdown put it on hold for nearly two years.

The delay, however, proved timely as this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Diary. It was first published in 1947 in Dutch, then in French. The American edition appeared in 1952.

Moreover, the recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks – ranging from the horrifying assault on a synagogue in Texas to the comments of people who should know better – serve as a reminder that the events leading up to the Diary are not fictional and that Frank’s death at the hands of the Nazis was not imagined or even exaggerated.

“So now is the perfect time for this game,” Gruenhut said. “We talk about six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, but six million is a statistic, and statistics don’t tell stories. The story of Anne Frank is important because she was one of six million – a victim of anti-Semitism – not a storybook version of a universal teenager.

Kimberly Gilbert as Mrs. Silver with Anne Frank puppet and puppeteers in “Compulsion or the House Behind”. Photo by Stan Barouh.

The protagonist of Compulsion– called Sid Silver – is a stand-in for Meyer Levin, the real-life author who wrote fictional biographies before becoming obsessed with Anne Frank. In the play, which is based on Levin’s account, he struggles to get those who control legal rights to accept his adaptation over the bland one.

Paul Morella gives a standout performance as Silver, charting his downfall as he goes from funny but argumentative to boring and ultimately too awful to bear.

Anti-Semitism is present in this room. Even the young editor, Miss Mermin – who is modeled after the real Barbara Epstein – admits she finds the Holocaust”depressing.”

East Anne Frank’s diary a Jewish story? Miss Mermin thinks not. And his decision was subsequently echoed by others in the publishing industry, as well as all the lawyers and producers (denounced by Silver as “assimilationist communists”) as well as Otto Frank, the columnist’s father, who is the only surviving family member. Nazi death camps.

Even Silver’s French wife, who initially supports her, begins to lose patience. (It is she, we learn, who brings the Diary to the attention of her husband, having discovered the book at a bookseller in Paris.)

Paul Morella as Sid Silver in “Compulsion or the House Behind”. Photo by Stan Barouh.

In a scene so breathtaking you can almost see lightning strike on stage, Kimberly Gilbert, who plays both women, slowly strips off her editor costume and transforms into the aggrieved wife who can’t stand another moment of this madness. It’s an electric moment, drawing gasps from the audience, and a fitting ending to act one.

“It’s the kind of moment that sums up the magic of theater,” Gruenhut said. Yet the scene itself is completely new. It’s one of many script changes that she and playwright, Rinne B. Groff, made, working together (but never in the same play) over several months.

For Johanna Gruenhut, reinterpreting the end of a play is not unusual. She grew up in Manhattan and attended Ramaz, the prestigious Jewish day school where, in addition to all the usual high school subjects, such as history and math, she studied the Talmud, learning to analyze biblical texts and to compare different interpretations over the centuries.

This ability – to see different meanings in chapter and verse – prepared her to direct plays which, as Compulsion, can be seen in different ways. “The study of the Talmud is a very useful approach for a director. It’s a way of looking at a screenplay from many different angles.

She went to Boston University, where she double majored in film and comparative religion. But as she started out as an actress, she quickly turned around, realizing she preferred working behind the scenes.

“To me, this piece is about storytelling and the suspension of belief,” she concluded. “This is the power of theater and the source of its ability to bring about change.”

Now 41, Gruenhut is married and lives with her family in Baltimore. Like many other parents, she has spent most of the pandemic homeschooling her children, but has found time between classes to read scripts and direct an audio play for the J.

The constraint or the house behind plays until February 20, 2022, presented by the J Theater at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater at the Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th NW Street, Washington, DC. Buy tickets in person ($35 to $70) on line or by calling the box office at 202-777-3210.

The constraint or the house behind also streams Feb. 8-20, 2022. Streaming tickets ($60, valid for viewing 10:00 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. ET), can be purchased on line or by calling the box office at 202-777-3210.

Duration: 2h05 including 15 minutes intermission.

The program for The constraint or the house behind is online here.

COVID Safety: In accordance with Edlavitch DCJCC policy, all individuals will be required to present proof of full vaccination each time they enter the EDCJCC by presenting either digital documentation on a smartphone or a physical copy of their vaccination card. Fully Immunized means 14 days have passed since receiving the second dose of an FDA or WHO-cleared double-dose vaccine or since receiving the single dose of an FDA-cleared single-dose vaccine or WHO. People with medical or religious exemptions to vaccinations will be required to present proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of arrival at the EDCJCC. Wearing a mask will be required inside the building by all people at all times. Only artists and guests invited on stage can be unmasked. Edlavitch DCJCC’s full safety guidelines are here.

SEE ALSO:
‘Compulsion’ at Theater J suffers with the memory of an unspeakable evil (reviewed by John Stoltenberg)
Theater J program aims to diversify representations of Jewishness on stage (season announcement)

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