Puppet Tears

Anne Marie Schuler/Staff

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Compulsion," the first production of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's 2010-2011 season, depicts one Sid Silver (Mandy Patinkin) in his attempts to publish Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" and adapt it for the stage. Mesmerized by Anne's hopeful prose and steadfast courage, the erstwhile writer devotes and sacrifices his professional life to championing her work. Silver comes up against obstacle after obstacle: Unsympathetic editors, mean lawyers and anti-Semitism. As the play unfolds it becomes apparent that the biggest hurdle is his own paranoia. The literary bigwigs and attorneys are unhelpful politicos, a bit cartoonish at first. But Sid's devotion to telling Anne's story becomes an unhealthy obsession, one that torpedoes his career and threatens to sink his marriage.

Silver speaks with Anne Frank about his mission, her writing and the terror she witnessed. Speaking to dead teenage girls might seem laughable in another context, but here it's a touching look into a troubled man's mind. The play uses marionettes to represent Anne and her family as Silver recollects some of the diary's most moving scenes. A group of puppeteers expertly bring Silver's dream to life. All four actors lend Anne a voice, each distinct, but each also full of whimsy and hope. Although she's not the star of the show, Anne provides rays of optimism.

The play is full of jokes, not all of them funny, but I'm not sure playwright Rinne Groff is going for guffaws. At first the neurotic Jewish jokes have a charm to them; Patinkin comes off as something between Woody Allen and Lewis Black. It becomes increasingly apparent that his neuroses and fears are sad rather than funny. Silver is a perpetual victim of others' bigotry, both real and perceived. Some jokes are actually recycled from "Annie Hall," which suggests the writer wanted to evoke stereotypes instead of laughter. One of the better gags is Silver mistaking various WASP-y editors for the same person, a biting dose of "reverse racism."

Patinkin is spectacular in "Compulsion." He perfectly balances the affability and grotesqueness of the obsessive Sid Silver. He has a rare gift to command and terrify a room with his shouts, and then lull/pacify the crowd with soft lyrical adulations of Anne Frank's work. That skill - to repel and attract an audience simultaneously - is crucial to the success of the work.

Groff plays with narrative voice in the play, giving a peek into her main character's head. We see his madness firsthand: His jokes and paranoia are identifiable, his obsession admirable, and his terror is capable of producing boatloads of empathy. The reality of his obtuse methods (litigation) seems noble at first, insane towards the end. Silver slowly morphs into a monster, showing that even a good cause can be undone by too much passion.

"Compulsion" is a horrifically interesting character study. Although Silver never hid in an attic or entered a death camp, the Nazis have scarred him irrevocably. The crimes of Auschwitz have driven him mad with fear and disgust.

Anne's diary becomes the only reassurance of hope for man's redemption. However, investing his entire soul in this figure can only result in disaster.

"Compulsion" is deft, smart and terribly sad. However it suffers from a slow second act, which has many redeemable moments but lacks a driving force. But maybe it's a bit truer to life in that respect, as Silver wastes away and gradually confronts his problems. Regardless, it's a fantastic script paired with a powerful turn from a Broadway great. (Another reason to see it: You can brag about seeing it first next year when it wins a bunch of Tonys in New York.)

Make early Tonys predictions with Derek at [email protected]

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