Reviewed by Judy Richter
"Compulsion" is the play's title, but it could just as easily be called "Obsession" or "Disintegration" as it relates a Jewish writer's years-long effort to get his adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" onto the stage. Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting the world premiere of Rinne Groff''s fascinating drama along with The Public Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre. The two-act play has already been staged by Yale Rep. In February it will move to The Public in New York.
The play is a semi-fictional account of real-life writer Meyer Levin's fascination with the diary kept by a young Jewish girl hiding with her family and others in Amsterdam during World War II. However, Groff's protagonist is called Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin). Likewise, the names of people he encounters in the play are changed, but real names are used for people who are mentioned but who don't appear. Hence we hear of Otto Frank, Anne's father, who first brought the diary to world's attention; and producer Cheryl Crawford, who was interested in Silver/Levin's adaptation. The protagonist dislikes playwright/author Lillian Hellman so much that he becomes paranoid about her, making wild accusations such as saying she was stealing letters he had sent to another office in her building. He also decries efforts to make the story less Jewish.
But that's later in the play, when his mental state has deteriorated so much that he loses all of his friends, even his loyal wife (Hannah Cabell). Earlier we see flashes of prickliness and temper that become more frequent and frenzied. As directed by Oskar Eustis, Patinkin skillfully navigates his character's emotional journey in a tour de force performance.
Besides Patinkin and Cabell, who plays all of the female characters, the only other member of the cast is Matte Osian, who plays all of the other male characters. Both of them skillfully define their various characters. Both also give voice to the puppets representing Anne Frank; Peter Van Pels, the teenager whose family hid out with Anne's; and others.
Use of the puppets is quite effective in such ways as voicing sections of the diary and imagined dialogue between Anne and the Silvers. Hats off to the puppeteers -- Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay and Eric Wright -- as well as puppet designer and puppetry supervisor Matt Acheson. Video and projections designed by Jeff Sugg also enhance the production. The relatively simple, flexible set is by Eugene Lee with lighting by Michael Chybowski, costumes by Susan Hilferty and sound by Darron L West.
Berkeley Rep has an enviable record of success in transferring shows to New York. "Compulsion" is highly likely to enhance that record.