Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb
Henning's play intentionally refers to Leopold and Loeb as "boys" - not to mitigate the severity of their crime, but to emphasize their extraordinary immaturity. We're initially introduced to the boys at age 15, when they use language like "swell enough" and "gee thanks." It's the early 1920s, and while Dickie Loeb is extremely book smart, he's incredibly childish in nearly all other respects. Nick Niven plays him as an almost manic giggly teen, and when Dickie is pleased by something - even when that something is a criminal act - his pleasure expresses itself in a boyish glee. Indeed, Niven gives Dickie so much youthful exuberance, it is sometimes hard to believe the dialogue that tells us that Dickie is, in fact, astonishingly intelligent. In contrast, Babe Leopold is more grounded. Thoughtful and more deliberate than Dickie, Babe rarely acts without calculating first. Aaron Himelstein's Babe is quiet and cautious, and Himelstein gives no doubt that Babe is burning with intelligence.
And when the two meet - which is where the play joins the story - it is with the mutual attraction of outsiders who have finally discovered that they are not alone. Alone, Dickie and Babe are quirky, weird and marginalized. But together, they accept, understand and nourish each other's obsessions - with tragic results. And, since we the audience know where this ultimately will end, the play becomes something like a living psychological profile of the killers, where we now view every event as a piece of the puzzle, every interaction as laying the foundation for their transformation from boys into monsters.
The first act consists of dozens of scenes - snippet upon snippet of the boys' lives is portrayed leading up to the murder. Roy Rede's set is a wood-panelled courtroom with a table and a few chairs. There are no set changes - all of the action takes place with these bits of furniture standing in for whatever is necessary, be it bed, car or rowboat. An ensemble of actors sits upstage in chairs (rather like jurors) watching the story unfold before them, until they grab a costume piece hanging from the wall and join the action. Scene changes often occur in brief blackouts, although some take place in the light. Vicki Lewis's seamless transition from a hooker entertaining Dickie to Babe's elderly Jewish mother is particularly noteworthy, and the more that blackout follows blackout, the more welcome these open-view scene changes would be.
The problem with the first act is that the reality of the story isn't very theatrical. There was no major incident, no single thing that can be pointed to with the idea that this is where it all went wrong. That events unfolded as they did is certainly fascinating in a scholarly documentary sort of way, but the sheer quantity of largely routine scenes eventually starts to weigh.
The second act, which contains whole scenes of transcribed dialogue from interviews and the trial (including Clarence Darrow's famous argument) illustrate the maxim about truth being stranger than fiction, as some of the real words spoken invite a sense of edge-of-your-seat interest that was lacking in the first act. This is particularly true with an interview between the prosecutor (a standout performance by Michael Urie) and Leopold, in which questions and answers become a game expertly played for a position of conversational dominance. Another stunning text is a letter written by Loeb to Darrow after Darrow finished pleading for the boys' lives, but before the judge rendered his final decision. Hearing words penned in the time that Loeb's life quite literally hung in the balance, one finds oneself desperately hoping that this boy who giggled so much when he thought he'd gotten away with murder has finally obtained some level of insight into what it truly was that he got so phenomenally wrong. It is in moments like these that Dickie & Babe holds way more tension than it does during the portrayal of the murder itself.
Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb runs at The Blank's 2nd Stage Theatre in Hollywood through March 16, 2008. For further information see www.theblank.com.
The Blank Theatre Company - Daniel Henning, Artistic Director/Producer; Noah Wyle, Artistic Producer - presents Dickie & Babe: The Truth About Leopold & Loeb. Written and Directed by Daniel Henning. Producers Serene Bynum, Stacy Reed, Noah Wyle; Associate Producers Daniel Garcia, Sara Israel, Jon VanMiddlesworth. Set Design Roy Rede; Costume Design Dana Peterson; Lighting and Sound Design Dave Mickey; Hair & Makeup Design Judi Lewin; Projection & Media Design Rick Baumgartner and Dave Mickey; Production Stage Manager Meg Friedman; Assistant Director Christopher Raymond; Assistant Stage Manager Mai Kobayashi.