Friday, September 17, 2010

"Compulsion" ☼ ☼ ☼ Plus BANG

Rinne Groff's "Compulsion" calls for a lead who is Jewish, middle-aged and has a serious case of schpilkes. Mandy Patinkin can squirm with the best of them -- his performance gives Sid Silver, the fictionalized discoverer of Anne Frank's diary, copious amounts of anger and desperation, self-righteousness and self-loathing. He is a schmuck with charm. He can't let go and he can't sit still. Clearly half-crazy, one minute he is in love with life, the next infatuated with the dead Dutch teenager who, he has decided, must become nothing less than the voice of the Jewish people.

Groff's play is brand new -- The Berkeley Rep production is its world premiere. When it is brilliant it is truly so. The combination of marionettes, handled by a trio of puppeteers from a catwalk above the thrust stage, is inspired. When we see Anne, the subject of Silver's compulsion, she is a gangly and simply dressed marionette with a whitened face, as if half alive. To Sid Silver she symbolizes life itself, but to those around him, especially his wife (Hannah Cabell - more on her stupendous performance in a moment), Anne Frank is an impossible act to follow.

Cabell plays not only Sid Silver's French wife, but also his friend/nemesis at Doubleday Publishing, Miss Mermin. The two performances are both terrific -- you don't realize this is one actor playing both roles until later on when you only see one woman taking her bows. As Mrs. Silver she is patient but restless; as Miss Mermin she is understanding but finally driven over the edge by Silver's intransigence.

The other multiple roles are played by Matte Osian, as a series of New York stuffed suits, and also as an Israeli theater director. This is because eventually Silver must relocate to Israel, the only country where he has a ghost of a chance to see his play performed the way he wrote it.

But "Compulsion" rises or falls on the strength of the lead. We bought 95% of Mandy Patinkin's character, but we must warn you that in the other 5% he oozes more schmaltz than your grandmother's chopped liver. Of particular fascination is a scene where Ann appears in bed with Sid and his wife. It is a touching, heart-wrenching scene, perhaps the best in the show, but it is followed immediately by Patinkin singing what is probably a Yiddish lullaby, in a forced tenor that made us cringe. Not the quality of his voice -- he is a vocal performer after all -- but that this lovely scene with a wife coming to grips with the fact that her husband has another "lover" -- the deceased Anne Frank -- could possibly lead to a song? A song?

The brilliant parts far outweigh the negatives, and there is plenty of time for them to iron out the wrinkles. "Compulsion" looks like a play that is going to be around for a long time.

Final note: we really enjoyed the music. Darron L. West's sound design was simple -- solo piano, mainly -- but added greatly to the show.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ Plus BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Compulsion" Three Stars PLUS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE is for Hannah Cabell's performances as well as for the inventiveness of using marionettes to illustrate the inner workings of the characters' minds. It's a little long and overwrought right now. We would suggest you ignore the rave reviews you are going to see -- get your tickets for the end of the run, when the show, like a good soup, has had a little time for all the flavors to blend.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through October 31
$29-$73 (half price tickets available)

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