Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Never the Sinner
It was called "The Crime of the Century." Of course, there have been plenty of thosebut there was something especially shocking about the Leopold and Loeb murder case. John Logan's play Never the Sinner shows precisely why that case caused such a sensation in 1924, and Mauckingbird Theatre's provocative production is quite a sensation in its own right.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were teenaged students at the University of Chicago who believed they were embodiments of Nietzsche's "superman" philosophy. Convinced they were entitled to commit a perfect murder because they were superior to other men, with an "awesome responsibility" to "stun the world," they murdered a fourteen-year-old boy but were quickly caught. The grisly killingplus the trial's revelation of a homoerotic bond between the two killerswas tailor-made for the tabloids, which did their best to stir up public outrage.
Logan effectively captures the hysteria of the period by having three tabloid reporters acting as a Greek chorus, breathlessly commenting on the action. He also moves the action along with swift, short scenes that capture the mania behind the killers' scheme. Everything about the plot is presented clearly and logically, even as the show moves back and forth in time. Director Peter Reynolds' fluid staging keeps things snappy in act one. In act two, things slow down for some long speeches, but the play never drags; it's engrossing to see all the characters reflect soberly on the enormity of what they have lived through.
Loeb was the handsome charmer of the pair who enticed men and women alike. It's a perfect role for Evan Jonigkeit, who gives an exhilarating performance. He's a joy to watch, constantly on the move, always hyper-aware of the impact he is making on the people around him. Leopold was content to let Loeb grab most of the attention, but in this production, Leopold cedes the spotlight too easily: Brian Kurtas underplays the role a little too much, almost to the point where he seems a minor character in his own story. Leopold was the more taciturn of the pair, but Kurtas' performance often seems not so much sedate as sedated.
There are exceptionally strong performances by Eric Kramer and Dan Kern as the two attorneys who express their outrage in very different ways. As the district attorney, Kramer is properly determined and indignant, but he never makes this potentially buffoonish figure a caricature. Kern is the crafty defense attorney Clarence Darrow, frustrated and horrified by his clients but tenaciously determined to save them from execution. Mary Anne Chiment's set design is minimal and effective, while her costumes are impressive, especially the natty suits for the two killers.
There's nothing melodramatic in the script by Logan (who wrote this before penning the screenplays for Gladiator and The Aviator). The dialogue is natural and direct, and the drama offers no easy answers. When it comes to Leopold and Loeb, says Darrow, "I could hate the sin, but never the sinner." You may not be as forgiving as Darrow was, but no matter what your opinion, you'll leave Mauckingbird's provocative Never the Sinner with a lot to think about.
Never the Sinner runs through August 30, 2009 at the Adrienne Theatre's Mainstage, 2030 Sansom Street. Ticket prices range from $15 to $20 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-923-8909, online at www.MauckingbirdTheatreCo.org or in person at the box office.