‘Compulsion’ reveals a man on a mission

Audiences will recognize the photo of the young girl with the large eyes and dark hair. For those who lived through World War II and the 50 years that followed, Anne Frank is an unforgettable icon. 

Perhaps not so familiar is Sid Silver, the central character of Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion.” In this riveting new play, which made its world premiere Thursday as the first production of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2010-11 season, Silver is the man who brought Anne Frank’s immortal “The Diary of a Young Girl” into the light.

Based on Meyer Levin — the real-life journalist, author, playwright and puppeteer — Silver is, as the title suggests, a man obsessed, not just with getting Anne’s diary published, but with preserving her as a symbol for Jewish identity.

It’s an epic struggle, and Groff’s script follows it to the end as Silver fights the publishing world, the legal system, Anne’s father, Otto, and the theater producers who think his stage adaptation of the diary is a little “too Jewish.”

If he’s ultimately successful, he wreaks considerable havoc while pursuing his singular quest.

Starring Broadway actor Mandy Patinkin, the play emerges as a fascinating slice of 20th-century history, infused with political insight, poetic yearning, literary name-dropping and plenty of Jewish humor. 

Director Oskar Eustis — whose Public Theatre co-commissioned the work with Berkeley Rep and Yale Repertory Theatre — brings the discrete threads together in a vigorous production with sets by Eugene Lee, lighting by Michael Chybowski, costumes by Susan Hilferty and sound by Darron L. West. 

Patinkin gives a bravura performance, tempering Silver’s high ideals with relentless drive, an explosive temper and a cruel vindictive streak. 

Despite the character’s flaws, he makes Silver sympathetic. Patinkin, who got a hand just for walking onstage at the start of opening night, earned a genuine ovation by the end. 

Hannah Cabell plays Silver’s beleaguered French wife and his New York publisher. Matte Osian fills out the cast as various lawyers, agents, directors and lackeys. 

Matt Acheson’s marionettes — especially the one who speaks for Anne — enter and exit from above the stage, adding a haunting dimension.
 
The 2½-hour production isn’t perfect. It could use some judicious edits, especially in the second half. Yet by evening’s end, “Compulsion” offers a potent reminder of the truths Levin dedicated his life to keeping alive.

IF YOU GO
Compulsion

Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 31
Tickets: $14.50 to $73
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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