In Rinne Groff’s new drama “Compulsion,” at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a World War II reporter who witnessed the liberation of the camps has returned to New York to make his name as a serious writer.
Seeing in Anne Frank’s diary the kernel of a Broadway hit, the writer, Sid Silver, contacts the girl’s father, Otto Frank, helps to arrange for its publication by Doubleday and writes a rave review of the book for the New York Times.
We come in on the story when things start to spin out of control for grumpy Sid, played by Mandy Patinkin as a guy with a chip on his shoulder. (Sid is a fictional stand-in for the real- life writer Meyer Levin.)
The Doubleday executives at first seem to support Sid, with one saying he “can’t think of a single writer -- Jewish, or whatever you want to call it” better qualified to review the diary.
Later, an assistant, Miss Mermin, shows Sid a proposed ad for the diary and explains how “the advertising department said they didn’t want readers to think they were in for something depressing.”
As the meetings drag on -- first about the diary’s publication, then about choosing a playwright and producer for the stage adaptation -- Sid grows increasingly combative and paranoid as he realizes he’s being squeezed out.
“At every turn so far, they’ve de-Judaized the thing!” he exclaims in frustration after his script for the play is turned down by Otto, presumably on advice of the Doubleday executives and the tough-as-nails Miss Mermin (Hannah Cabell), who calls Sid a loser.
Patinkin delivers an in-your-face performance in this cleverly staged production. Sometimes he’s the tough reporter, sometimes he’s close to a raving lunatic, muttering about Lillian Hellman plotting against him.
Patinkin is matched by the two other cast members: Cabell, who also plays Sid’s French wife, and Matte Osian, who portrays the Doubleday executives as well as the director of Sid’s play when it’s produced in Israel.
Patinkin is aided by a second cast, a group of almost life-size puppets who appear as Anne, Otto, Sid and others. The illusions created by the marionettes (voiced by Cabell and Osian) give the show a spooky edge. It’s stage business that tugs at you -- helping the show, directed by Oskar Eustis, touch on serious issues without becoming too pedantic.
Through Oct. 31 at 2025 Addison St. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org.
(The play is a co-production of Yale Repertory Theatre and New York’s Public Theater, where Eustis is artistic director. It opens at the Public on Feb. 1, 2011.) Rating: ***
Across the bay in San Francisco, the actor-director-clown Bill Irwin has revived his 1994 version of Moliere’s “The Tricks of Scapin,” a comedy of scheming servants who get the best of their rich and clueless masters.
There’s no shortage of laughs in this slick show at American Conservatory Theater, where the tone is more tongue-in-cheek than faithful rendering of the 1671 original. Irwin and co-adaptor Mark O’Donnell shamelessly borrow from vaudeville, movies (one servant riffs on Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” line from “Taxi Driver”) and contemporary culture to update its commedia dell’arte roots.)
Aided by a two-man band, a colorful Renaissance-street set designed by Erik Flatmo, and a versatile cast from A.C.T.’s resident company, this “Scapin” keeps Irwin as the center of attention. He’s always clowning around, talking to the audience, slipping into soft-shoe dance numbers, mugging and generally showing off.
Through Oct. 23 at 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Information: +1-415-749-2228; http://www.act-sf.org. Rating: ** 1/2
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(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)