W.C. Fields famously advised actors to never work with animals or children. And I suspect were he living in the era of The Lion King and Avenue Q he would have added puppets to that list. As we see in Rinne Groff's Compulsion (at Off Broadway's Public Theater through March 13), it's all too easy for a marionette to upstage an actor, even scenery-chewing Tony- and Emmy-winning emotional tempest Mandy Patinkin.
The puppet, however the beautiful, anthropomorphic creation of Matt Acheson is Anne Frank, whose legend hovers over Groff's thoughtful, truth-based drama. (Sometimes almost literally; when she exits a scene, she's hoisted up into the rafters by puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay, and Eric Wright, where she remains hanging.) Patinkin plays an author named Sid Silver (modeled on the writer Meyer Levin) who makes it his mission to adapt Frank's diary into a play. When other writers non-Jewish writers edge him out, he considers it a ''crime.'' This leads to a legal battle in which he accuses Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the real-life writers of the Pulitzer-winning play The Diary of Anne Frank, of plagiarism. The struggle nearly destroys his marriage; his wife (Hannah Cabell, who doubles as a bright young book editor) refers to Anne as his ''mistress.'' Even when the couple relocates to Israel, Silver refuses to leave his deep-rooted obsession behind.
Patinkin has never shied from in-your-face, unlikable characters (think Chicago Hope, Criminal Minds), and Silver is no exception. He's perhaps one of the most unsympathetic heroes ever seen on a New York stage. But Anne or, rather, her delicate puppet representation actually softens him. (Also, the puppet thing is no gimmick: Levin ran a marionette theater in the 1920s.) She not only provides the inspiration for Groff's play but also ends up being a very humanizing presence. B
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-5555)