“Compulsion,” the first play in the Next Theatre Company’s 2013-14 season, is a thought-provoking odyssey of one man’s obsession with bringing the “true” version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” to the stage. Most of the audience will likely have more questions than answers after the curtain call. The true intentions of the characters portrayed, and the blur of historical fact and literary interpretation presented, are ripe for discussion.
First the facts, courtesy of the production notes: Meyer Levin was a successful, influential writer, who wrote the best-selling book “Compulsion” that detailed the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. He was considered by many to be a prominent Jewish-American voice in the 1950s. One of the first American journalists to read Anne Frank’s published diary in Europe before it made its way to the states, Mr. Levin secured the rights to adapt the book for the stage from Anne’s father, Otto Frank.
Ultimately, however, his play was discarded for a more “stage-worthy” version by more successful playwrights. Thus began Mr. Levin’s lifelong quest to get his play to the stage. He wrote of his plight in “The Obsession,” in 1974, which Rinne Groff adapted for the stage as “Compulsion.” Her play is a remarkable depiction of a complex man that pulls no punches, leaving the audience to decide what to think of the man and his litigious pursuit to tell Anne’s story.
Mick Weber, who was excellent in Next’s “Madagascar” and “After the Revolution,” is a force of nature as Sid Silver (aka Meyer Levin). Sid cannot get out of his own way, slandering those who oppose his need to control Anne’s words, suing others for stealing his ideas, and never stopping to realize that the words in question belonged to someone else.
He ruins his marriage to Mrs. Silver – who is based on Tereska Torres, Mr. Levin’s wife – forgets his children (who never appear on stage) and ruins his reputation. Mrs. Silver is played by Next Theatre artistic director Jenny Avery, who is excellent in dual roles; she also plays Ms. Mermin, a character based on Doubleday literary editor Barbara Epstein.
The scenes between Ms. Avery and Mr. Weber, in both moments of volatility and earnest discussion, are often riveting, as both actors crackle with passion. Uncannily gifted director Devon de Mayo, who directed last season’s successful “Everything Is Illuminated,” makes her presence felt during the marital spats and the writer-editor ideological discussions.
John Byrnes (“The Overwhelming”) is so convincing as various, sleazy executives and editors, all vaguely anti-Semitic, that we almost buy into Sid’s paranoia and believe his cause is just. Just when one wants to root for Sid, he puts blinders on and barrels down on all he perceives as opposing him in his attempt to bring the truth of Anne’s story to the masses. The audience must decide whether this is a noble effort or an ego-fuelling exercise.
“Compulsion” runs through Nov. 17 at Next Theatre Company, 927 Noyes St., at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. Tickets can be purchased at nexttheatre.org or 847-475-1875 x2.