By Rinne Groff
Directed by Oskar Eustis
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Sept. 13-Oct. 31, 201
(see video clip from Yale Repertory Theatre below)
When author Meyer Levin wrote his most famous work, “Compulsion,” he knew what he was talking about. Not only with regard to the researched details of the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder with which the book dealt, but the effects of obsession itself. Because, evidently, Levin had a compulsion of his own and it more or less did him in. For some 20 years, the author engaged in a legal and moral struggle to put the diary of Anne Frank on the stage, taking on publishers, lawyers and Otto Frank, the patriarch and sole surviving member of Anne’s family in the process. Seeing himself as Anne’s literary heir, since the moment he brought the teenager’s diary to the attention of the American publishing world and, hoping to ride her coattails all the way to immortality, Levin put his marriage and reputation at risk and squandered most of the fortune he made from the book, play and screenplay of “Compulsion” on lawyers’ fees.
Levin lost the battle but he may have won the war. Lawrence Graver chronicled his struggle in his “An Obsession with Anne Frank” and, from that, the young playwright Rinne Groff has come up with “Compulsion,” an innovative drama that takes its title from Levin’s work and its substance from his life. The world premiere at Berkeley Rep stars none other than Mandy Patinkin as the more-than-paranoid author and is directed by New York Public Theater head Oskar Eustis. As it is co-produced with Yale Repertory Theater and the Public, can Broadway be far behind? Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets. Berkeley Rep has birthed a string of Broadway hits in recent years and this just could be another.
It’s a taut, fast-moving two hours, part fact and part fantasy, using puppets and dream sequences to heighten the effect. (Levin actually was a puppeteer early in his career so the puppetry makes sense in the context of the play). The humans on board are only three: Patinkin, trailing his aura of stage and screen renown (“Evita,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “The Princess Bride,” “Yentl” and television’s “Chicago Hope”); Hannah Cabell (“In the Next Room, or the vibrator play”) and Matte Osian (“Mad Forest” at Berkeley Rep). They are a virtuoso ensemble, with Cabell playing both the author’s charming, sympathetic and long-suffering French-born wife and a disaffected Jewish publishing assistant, seeming totally different in each part and changing character on a dime, and Osian hilariously doubling as several publishing company “suits” and then showing up in Act Two as an Israeli theater director, playing him in a totally different key. The rest is up to talented puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Patrick Fay and Eric Wright.
Patinkin does Levin – here re-named Sid Silver – at a fever pitch. He yells a lot. He rarely smiles or cracks a joke and, when he does, it comes as a gift. As does the Yiddish lullaby he sings during a charming dream sequence in which Anne Frank (played by a puppet) and Mrs. Silver (Cabell), rivals for the author’s love, come to terms with their relationship. The signs of mental instability are evident early on as the writer defends his version (the more Jewish, less marketable version) of the diary and steadily increase as he takes on Lillian Hellman, Carson McCullers and the entire New York literary and theater world. He moves to Israel to find peace and put his marriage back together and, the next thing you know, he is staging his version of “Diary of Anne Frank” in violation of legal agreements made back home. Silver is less a likeable character than a pitiable one – talented but obnoxious – narcissistic to a fault yet, in Anne’s own words, “good at heart.” He is a sick man, aware of his obsession but unable to let it go, whatever the cost. Patinkin plays him to the hilt. If this is a star vehicle, it has found its star.