‘Compulsion’ intrigues as a story, but lacks crucial passion on stage
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic October 17, 2013 3:38PM
Jenny Avery and Mick Weber star in “Compulsion” at Next Theatre Company.
When: Through Nov. 17
Where: Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston
Tickets : $30-$40
Info: (847) 475-1875, ext. 2; nexttheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours with one intermission
Updated: November 20, 2013 6:03AM
In 1956, Chicago-bred writer Meyer Levin published“Compulsion,” a bestseller about the Leopold and Loeb murder case widely considered the first “non-fiction novel.” Ironically, he wrote that novel after nearly self-destructing by pursuing his own obsession with “The Diary of Anne Frank.” And it is that “compulsive,” three-decade-long quest that is at the center of Rinne Groff’s 2010 play, “Compulsion,” now at Evanston’s Next Theatre.
The story of Levin’s obsession is complex and laced with huge personal demons, the incestuous nature of publishing and show biz, and the anti-Semitism and other political realities in this country before, during and after World War II. But the questions that most continually arise are these: Was Levin, named Sid Silver here (a performance by Mick Webber in need of more sweaty passion) so hellbent on being chosen to adapt Anne Frank’s diary for the stage because he believed he and Anne’s father, Otto Frank, had made a legal agreement, and that as a fervent Jewish-American and witness to the liberation of the concentration camps he was best suited for the job? Or was he more opportunistic than altruistic — desperate to build his career on the diary he first encountered by way of his young French wife? The truth might well be a very twisted blend of all these things.
Groff begins her play in the early 1950s as Levin is tapped by editors at Doubleday to write the crucial New York Times review of the U.S. edition of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The review triggers sales, but Levin is pushed aside as other adapters, more willing to “homogenize” a Jewish story into a universal one, are considered, and as Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who would earn a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, eventually were selected. (Otto Frank’s role in all this is a story all its own, and only hinted at here.)
In director Devon de Mayo’s production, Jenny Avery plays both an ambitious young editor who hopes to forge her own career with the “Diary,” and Silver’s passionate wife. In one revealing scene, the couple even share their bed with a beautiful wooden marionette of Anne Frank (designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock). John Byrnes plays everyone from editors and lawyers to an Israeli officer who runs a theater for soldiers as the Six Day War breaks out. (Groff, who does a solid job of charting Levin’s obsession, unnecessarily injects her politics into the proceedings at this point and beyond.)
Grant Sabin’s set design (office doors continually opened and slammed shut) is effective. Even more effective is Levin’s retort to an editor more interested in the Leopold and Loeb story: “Enough with the two murderers. What about the six million?”