Review: Compulsion (Next Theatre)

| October 20, 2013
Jenny Avery and Mick Weber in Next Theatre's "Compulsion" by Rinne Groff, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)        

Written by Rinne Groff
Directed by Devon de Mayo
Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston (map)
thru Nov 17  |  tickets: $30-$40   |  more info
Check for half-price tickets 
                   Read review


One man’s obsession of a universal tragedy


Mick Weber and John Byrnes and puppetry by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, in Next Theatre's "Compulsion" by Rinne Groff, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Next Theatre presents

Review by Lawrence Bommer

Compulsion is well-named. Rinne Groff’s driving drama depicts one man’s obsession with a tragedy that was more universal than he could allow.

A bit of background: Six million may have died between 1939 and 1945 but Anne Frank, who would have been 84 today, remains the human face for the Holocaust. More importantly, over three generations later her diary endures, an appeal to our collective decency. Four months after Anne’s death from typhus at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, her father Otto Frank acquired that precious keepsake from the family’s Dutch savior Miep Gies. Reading “The Diary of a Young Girl” has become a coming-of-age rite of passage for teens everywhere and, for grownups, a conscience-keeper they can never outgrow. It chronicles, of course, the two years during which Anne and her family and two other Jewish refugees hid in the “secret annex” above Otto’s Amsterdam office—until an employee informed on them and the Gestapo arrested them in 1944.

Mick Weber stars as Sid Silver in Next Theatre's "Compulsion" by Rinne Groff, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow) Groff’s behind-the-book account begins in 1951 and provides its own chronicle—of author Meyer Levin (whose masterpiece is “Compulsion,” a novel about Leopold and Loeb that would become a feature film) and his quest for the authentic Anne. The play covers 30 years (until Levin’s death in 1981) in terse scenes that document the writer’s manic desire to “own” the diary–writing a preface for the first edition (that was never printed), reviewing it despite the conflict of interest of his relationship with Otto Frank, and, above all, penning a stage version to open the story to the theater and film.

A Chicago premiere by Next Theatre Company, Devon de Mayo’s suitably driven staging is fueled by Mick Weber’s anguished author. Weber’s often out-of-control Sid Silver (as Levin is called) is a man on a mission to control a legacy. We see the increasingly paranoid Silver in escalating encounters with Doubleday literary editor Miss Mermin (Jenny Avery, demonstrating the agonies of grace under too much pressure) and publisher Ferris (John Byrnes), showing less patience with the often insufferable Silver).

Silver is enraged that Eleanor Roosevelt, a non-Jew, gets to write the preface. He’s even more incensed when non-Jews Goodrich and Hackett get the rights from Otto Frank to create the highly successful 1955 Broadway adaptation The Diary of Anne Frank, which wins a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Silver convinces himself that Lillian Hellman and Cheryl Crawford sabotaged his chances to get the green light for the drama version, then that his version was plagiarized even though Goodrich and Hackett never saw it.

Years later, the second act depicts a still-seething Silver in Israel during the Six-Day War. Here the true believer exhausts the patience of his much younger French wife (Avery). He almost tricks a theater connected with the Israeli army to perform his authentically Jewish version of Anne’s diary. Finally, fanatical to a fault, Silver all but pleads for Otto Frank’s murder as he denounces both Communists and conservatives for the failure of his dream. If he wins one court case, that only encourages him to sue even more. When he denounces an opponent with “Who got to you?,” the answer can only be “YOU got to you!”

The secret success of Compulsion is that, however obnoxious Silver’s crusade, we see his side. It’s demonstrated, bizarrely but persuasively, by hand puppets of Anne, Peter and finally Silver, who speak lines from the diary: In one strange scene Anne appears to Sid in bed to encourage him to rescue her from the popularizers.

Clearly, Levin/Silver feared that Anne’s story would be commercialized and generalized. He argued that if it succumbed to sentiment over situation, it wouldn’t be the rallying cry against anti-Semitism that, of course, Anne never meant to write. We’ll never know if Levin’s dramatization, not published but finally produced in 1966 in Israel and in 1972 at Brandeis University, was superior to the now-traditional drama and the 1959 film version (that indeed lacked Jews in the major roles). But there’s something both scary and magnificent in this man’s dogged commitment to a teenager who believed, against all the evidence, that people are basically good.

It’s fitting and right, then, that the puppet Anne gets the last word(s).

Rating: ★★★

Compulsion continues through November 17th at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston (map), with performances Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays 2pm.  Tickets are $30-$40, and are available by phone (847-475-1875 x2) or online through (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)

John Byrnes and Mick Weber in Next Theatre's "Compulsion" by Rinne Groff, directed by Devon de Mayo. (photo credit: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Jenny Avery (Mrs. Silver, Mermin), John Byrnes (Mr. Ferris, others), Mick Weber (Sid Silver)

behind the scenes

Devon de Mayo (director), Grant Sabin (set design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Jesse Mooney-Bullock (puppetry design), Mieka Vanderploeg (costume design), Kevin O’Donnell (sound design, composition), Eileen Rozycki (prop design), Amber Johnson (stage manager), Adam Liston (production manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)


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Category: 2013 Reviews, Lawrence Bommer, Next Theatre, Noyes Cultural Arts Center

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