Compulsory Viewing

25. September, 2010 Theater No comments

Rinne Groff’s play Compulsion is named after another Compulsion, Meyer Levin’s 1956 nonfiction novel based on the murder trial of Leopold and Loeb (later made into a movie with Orson Welles). Although Groff’s play has nothing to do with Leopold and Loeb, the name is appropriate for any number of reasons, not least that it too is a very loosely fictionalized account of a real case–the case of Levin himself.

Mandy Patinkin and friend in Compulsion. Photo courtesy of

A Chicago-born Jewish journalist, novelist and playwright, Levin was an early and fierce advocate of getting the diary of Anne Frank out to the world, both behind the scenes and in the a book review for the New York Times. He also convinced Anne’s father, Otto Frank, to let him write the stage adaptation, which savvy theatergoers may recall is not what wound up happening.  The hit play The Diary of Anne Frank was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of Father of the Bride, It’s a Wonderful Life, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and the Thin Man movies. Suffice it to say that Levin didn’t take this at all well.

Now playing at Berkeley Rep, Groff’s Compulsion shows Levin battling, suing, and brooding over this sense of having been wronged for decades afterward–a struggle Levin wrote about himself in his 1964 novel The Fanatic and 1974 memoir The Obsession. Although Groff’s script shows this obsession as being rooted in ego, or at least a need to be proved to be right, Levin’s concern is not so much for his own career and reputation: He waves off discussions of money and even his own writing projects to focus on the diary, and he drags his reputation down the more he drags the dispute out. No, he sees himself as fighting on the behalf of Jews everywhere against people he sees as wanting to expunge every trace of Jewishness from the diary to turn the specific horrors brought down upon one people in the Holocaust into syrupy sentiments about everybody having a hard time sometimes.

The play sticks fairly closely to the facts, although some characters are hybrids of multiple people and Levin is renamed Sid Silver, the name he gave the reporter character based on himself in his novel Compulsion. Sid is played by Broadway and screen veteran Mandy Patinkin in his Berkeley Rep debut. Last seen at the Rep in Mad Forest, Matte Osian plays the various corporate suits that Sid has to contend with–giving them subtle differences but keeping them alike enough that there’s a running gag about Sid always thinking it’s the same guy he was talking to before–as well as a likeable, bohemian Israeli director. Hannah Cabell, who was in Berkeley Rep’s world premiere of In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) gives a pair of truly remarkable performances as Sid’s free-spirited but long-suffering French wife and as a sympathetic Doubleday executive, the type of double role where people murmur their surprise at the curtain call that both were the same person.

Anne and other people in her story are played by creepy marionettes designed by Matt Acheson (some of which resemble actors in the play to an unnerving extent) and expertly manipulated by a trio of puppeteers on the catwalk above the intimate Thrust Stage. Silver ran a marionette theater in Chicago, the friendly Miss Mermin mentions in an early bit of exposition. The puppets act out scenes from both versions of the play—at one point four different Otto Frank marionettes descend to represent actors in the Hackett play all over the world—but Anne also haunts both Silvers, looking over Sid’s shoulder as he writes and having a devastating late-night heart-to-heart with Mrs. Silver while Sid sleeps. She’s a constant third party in their marriage, the other woman whom Sid can’t get over. Usually Cabell and Oslan voice the puppets from microphone stands, although Patinkin provides Anne’s voice for the memorable midnight chat.

This is the world premiere production, but it premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in late January before it came here. There’s one cast difference—most of the male parts were played in New Haven by Stephen Barker Turner, known around here for his roles at Cal Shakes. A coproduction with Yale Rep and New York’s Public Theater, the show will travel on to the Public next February. It’s directed by Public artistic director Oskar Eustis, the former artistic director of San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre Company (where he commissioned Tony Kushner’s Angels in America) in a rare return to the Bay Area stage.

You can tell Sid’s a serious man from the very first scene, when he comes to Doubleday to argue that they should publish the diary only to find that they’re already doing so. Long before anyone’s actually screwing him over, he anticipates being given the runaround, always on the offensive to guard against the anti-Semitism he sees all around him. Right before they tell him they’re publishing Anne’s diary, he jumps all over the Doubleday execs for asking about the Leopold and Loeb book he’s writing, saying they don’t want to hear about Jewish writing “unless it’s Jewish writing about two Jewish murderers.” He presses: “What about the six million murdered?

At first seeming simply gruff and businesslike, Patinkin’s performance builds on itself beautifully as the play goes on. His voice becomes faster and faster as Sid becomes agitated, which is often.  Even when he’s convinced himself that everything’s going his way, it takes little more than someone questioning that security for him to spin into an undertow of paranoia. In Sid’s most vulnerable moments, Patinkin displays symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, clutching his hands to his thighs and exhibiting subtle tics.

Sid particularly fixates on Lillian Hellman as the person who’s out to sabotage him, despite having no evidence that she’s taken an interest at all. He rages against what he perceives as Otto Frank’s betrayal of Silver’s play and, by extension, of all Jews, calling the Holocaust survivor “his Hitler and his Stalin,” and he badgers the interchangeable corporate suits and his sometime ally Miss Mermin long past the point of making himself a complete pariah.  When his wife says, “You have a strong sense of justice,” you can’t help but laugh because it’s such an understatement.

The play’s title is particularly apt because it’s increasingly clear that Sid can’t help himself, sabotaging himself at every turn, saying everyone’s out to get him while doing everything he can to make it true. “They didn’t get to you, Sid,” his director friend Maitzliach says. “You got to you. You should sue yourself for damages.”

A couple of individual scenes go on a little long, but for the most part it’s a taut and tense two hours and fifteen minutes with marvelous and much-needed flashes of humor. Boasting some truly remarkable performances, Compulsion makes for a compelling opening to Berkeley Rep’s season.

Through October 31
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #98 of 2010, attended September 19.

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