Murder, They Wrote
It seems every decade has its defining murders, and you can tell a lot about an age by which homicides grab national attention, how the press frames the crimes, and the ways the cases are disposed of by the courts. In the 1990s, it was O.J. Simpson's alleged fatal slashing of his ex-wife, Nicole, that saturated the media -- an ugly, messy, commonplace domestic dispute that titillated because of his celebrity and fame, her fragile blond beauty and its racial overtones. The strangulation of JonBenét Ramsey also involved great wealth, and there were hints of child molestation mingled with age-old fantasies about the sexually compliant and beautiful child.
Back in 1924 Chicago, the slaying of a fourteen-year-old boy, Bobby Franks, by two men not much older -- nineteen-year-old Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, who was eighteen -- shocked and fascinated America. Money played its part: All three were from very rich families. And there was sex, too -- the "perverse relationship," as newspapers of the time termed it, between Leopold and Loeb. Leopold worshiped his friend and colluded in his crimes in return for sexual favors. Loeb was a womanizer, though essentially asexual. Both were good-looking. Both dressed with style. Race played a part, too: A member of Chicago's Jewish community told a writer that, though he hated to say it aloud, it was lucky for the community that the victim, like his killers, had been Jewish.
Now add to the mix the debased philosophy used by Leopold and Loeb to justify their crime -- that they were Nietzschean übermenschen, above the common herd, justified in what they did by their superior intellects. They had chosen to kill because they wanted to see if they could carry out a perfect crime. Murdering Bobby Franks, Leopold said after the event, carried no more emotional weight for him than squashing a bug.
In Never the Sinner, playwright John Logan tells the Leopold and Loeb story in a deceptively simple style, and Denver's Theatre Group presents it on an almost bare stage, the only fixed furnishing being a group of shelves on which objects that play a role in the story are arranged. There are several flashbacks; the action moves back and forth from the trial to earlier moments in the events. Three actors playing reporters serve as a kind of Greek chorus. As scene builds upon scene, we begin to understand the relationship between Leopold and Loeb better, but no matter how many evocative tidbits we're given, something at its heart remains mysterious and unknowable. Loeb, we discover, is truly sociopathic, but we don't learn why. There are comments about a governess -- too strict? Loved and then dismissed? -- and of a profound coldness in his family. Breaking the law excites Loeb (the murder of Franks was preceded by several lesser crimes); he apparently feels no empathy for others and no remorse. Though in one scene, when he presses Leopold to say -- falsely -- that it was he and not Loeb who had actually struck Franks, he says it's because he wants to spare his mother's feelings.
Marc Burg plays Loeb with a kind of jovial looseness that's very effective. Brian Mallgrave's interpretation of Leopold gives this production a lot of its uneasy power. His Leopold is sometimes a smugly grinning little gnome with a nasty secret, sometimes a poet rhapsodizing about falcons and flight -- Leopold, who knew something like twenty languages and had already entered law school, was also a dedicated ornithologist -- and sometimes a desperate child. He veers between megalomania and intense humility. He worships Loeb, whom he truly sees as a kind of god on earth.
The play's somewhat static structure has a distancing effect. Its power is intellectual rather than emotional, though the events it depicts have a way of staying with you later, even creeping into your dreams, aided by director Nicholas Sugar's clean, honest and unsparing production. The audience knows at least the outline of the Leopold-Loeb story, so we're not swept up in the action or wondering what will happen next. Instead we focus on the words we're hearing, trying to prize some meaning from a senseless murder and to understand, at the most profound level, why it happened and what motivated the killers. One of my companions observed later that their fantasies of being beyond and above the world's mores and norms must have sprung from a deep unease, in those repressive and homophobic times, about their own homosexuality. I thought about how porous people are at eighteen and nineteen, and how difficult it can be at that age to distinguish one's self from the flow of events and sensations outside one's skin. It's a time when, particularly for lonely and highly imaginative people, the inner world can dominate and the outside world seem unreal.
Experts at the time felt it was unlikely that either Loeb or Leopold could have conceived and enacted a murder on his own. It was the mingling of the two personalities and the intense, private and isolated realm they created for themselves that proved fatal. That realm is oddly reminiscent of one imagined by two New Zealand schoolgirls in the fifties and anatomized in the film Heavenly Creatures. Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker were ultimately moved to murder by a parent's attempt to break up their relationship. Another comparison that's almost unavoidable is with the ugly fantasy world forged by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold and partially actualized in cyberspace before their murderous rampage.
Watching Never the Sinner, we long for some sign of contrition or even real feeling, but the play gives us only ambiguous moments. Leopold seems deeply shaken after the murder itself; an old girlfriend of Loeb's (wonderfully played by Cary Seston) talks about his fear of the dark; the two men have a conversation about whether, if they're hanged, they'll be hanged together.
Clarence Darrow represented Leopold and Loeb in court, acknowledging their guilt but pleading for their lives. Much of the second act of Never the Sinner is given over to the attorneys' arguments, taken directly from court transcripts. It's here that the production falters. Jim Hunt's Darrow is far from subtle. He does have some moving moments, but he also shouts far too much. Steven Miles, as the prosecutor, does somewhat better, but there are times when the two men stand side by side yelling in almost identical tones and at almost identical volume. Their words get lost as a result.
It's a sad commentary on our punitive times to realize how futile and sentimental Darrow's arguments about the immorality of the death penalty and his clients' youth would seem in a contemporary courtroom, but Theatre Group does well to remind us of them.
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