Arts & Events

Theatre Review: COMPULSION with PATINKIN—Rep goes 14 for 14!

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday September 21, 2010 - 08:20:00 AM
Mandy Patinkin, Hanna Cabell, and Matte Osian
Mandy Patinkin, Hanna Cabell, and Matte Osian

Truth be known, in my house we watch TV reruns of “Criminal Minds” just to see Mandy Patinkin. 

Mr. Patinkin won the Tony for creating the role of Ché in “Evita,” he created the title character in Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” as well the unforgettable Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride, and he’s won a Emmy. Now, he’s here in Berkeley! He could improv reading and singing the Yellow Pages, and I’d pay serious bucks.  

Lucky for all, he creates the compelling character of Sid Silver—based not all loosely on Meyer Levin—in Rinne Groff’s COMPULSION now at Berkeley Rep through Hallowe’en. 

Levin was a best-selling author of documentary fiction who wrote the kidnap-murder novel “Compulsion” about thrill-killings of his Harvard classmates Leopold and Loeb. 

Following his example of drama and fiction based on the real story, Rinne Groff has written what I will venture to predict will be the next Broadway hit based on this true story.  

Levin originally brought Anne Frank’s diary to the attention of Doubleday publishers. Levin was obsessed with writing the stage play of Frank’s story while keeping her Jewish identity foremost when that was not a selling point.  

Sid Silver is a driven man with a cause and a finely honed if idiosyncratic and self-serving sense of justice. He is filled with all the PTSD of a vicarious Holocaust survivor. Silver sacrifices all for his pursuit of his art, his script, his justice, and his people. Intriguingly, we learn, Silver/Levin was also a puppet-maker with his own theatre. 

Echoing Levin’s love of puppets, the play includes marionettes of Anne, her brother and others as integral characters. The astonishing likeness of puppets to the photos of the characters, the lifelike nuances of their movements, and the artistry of the puppeteers up on the catwalk add immeasurably to the production. The most moving scene is Levin in bed with his wife when marionette Anne appears from under the covers to plead his case for persevering to tell her story against his wife’s prohibitions.  

The other hook in the production is the double-casting which gives two extraordinary actors the opportunity to transform chameleon-like into multiple personae.  

Hanna Cabell plays both Silver’s French wife and the literary agent he bangs up against with seamless transitions of hair, makeup, and costume that is practically prestidigitation. Matte Osian plays various corporate characters that are so close to one another in appearance that even Silver gets confused though all are absolutely differentiated in character; Osian is then unrecognizable as the Israeli theatre director. 

Watching Patinkin on stage, one senses that one is witnessing a memorable theatrical experience. There is never a downturn in tension. He plays near-rabbinical, passionate argumentation to the point of momentary rage, and then softens it with charm and a joke. Whether growling and crouching like a cornered lion, romancing his wife with a waltz, or singing (YES!) a little ditty in Yiddish in his impossibly high tenor, he makes every moment filled and special. I remember seeing Burton do Hamlet, and O’Toole in a one man show in London that gave me the same feeling. Three times in a lifetime is lucky.  

Trying to follow the steps of the story to give a truthful picture, the plays slows a bit in the second act, but I was rapt with what Patinkin and company would do next, and it’s a lag that can easily be tuned up. 

A world premiere, COMPULSION is a tri-partite endeavor which has just come from Yale Rep and is on its way to NYC’s Public Theatre. That is 14 plays in 14 years that the Rep has sent to New York. 

Director Oskar Eustis had his roots in SF at the Eureka and midwived “Angels in America” with Rep’s Tony Taccone. Eustis now helms The Public Theatre in NYC. He has shaped a masterpiece in COMPULSION. 

The projections are expertly done, taking us through the 50’s from McCarthy to the ’56 and’67 wars, through the diary, through Levin/Silver’s life in Israel after NYC, and his OCD relationship to Frank.  

The costumes are apt, dressing Silver is mismatched pants and jacket like a writer who just reached into his closet in the dark, and contrasts it with the cosmopolitan stylishness of the other characters. 

The lighting and sound are spectacular. It is the most impressive and realistic thunderstorm I’ve ever seen in a theatre, and I hail from thunderstorm country.  

A long time ago, director Simon Levy (perhaps quoting another) posited to me that there are three things that attract audiences: Spectacle, Controversy, and Personality. In COMPULSION, we have “the hat trick.” 

Après theatre, we were hungry, so we ventured up to the corner to REVIVAL where co-owner Jerry greeted us outside the door and welcomed us in. I ordered a glass of red wine, and Amy, the other owner, must have seen me make a face upon tasting, and asked me if it was ok. I wouldn’t have complained, but she graciously insisted that I had to be satisfied and brought over another sample. With its inventive array of cocktails, it’s delicious, local farm fare, and personal amiability and service this place is going to become the next “Sardi’s”—Mandy and the cast were there (E. got her program autographed)—as was the cast of Aurora’s “Trouble in Mind” when I reviewed it last week. A traditional reason to go to theatre is a drink and a nosh thereafter, so check it out. 


COMPULSION by Rinne Groff 

Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St. 

Tickets at or (510) 647-2949. 

Run time 2 hr 30 min which includes one intermission. 

WITH: Mandy Patinkin, Hannah Cabell, Matte Osian, and Puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Patrick Fay, Eric Wright. 

Written by Rinne Groff, directed by Oskar Eustis, Scenic Design by Eugene Lee, Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Michael Chybowski, Sound Design by Darron L West, Video and Projection Design by Jeff Sugg, Puppet Design and Puppetry Supervision by Matt Acheson, with Stage Management by Michael Suenkel,