Two very different treatments of the "crime of the century" present contrasting ways to think of the famous killers.
There is a good case to be made that that most dubious of titles “crime of the century” (as if such an thing were an honor?) belongs to the 1924 murder case of Leopold and Loeb. Though the mass media totality that was the OJ Simpson trial will not soon be forgotten and the cultish Manson murders refracted a frightening negative image of the “peaceful” flower-child sixties, the Leopold and Loeb case holds its own, continuing to fascinate with a furor that is nothing short of incredible. A witch’s brew of thrill killing, homoeroticism, Nietzschean philosophy, and bourgeoisie excess, the tale is an irresistible cocktail of lurid fascination; an Übermensch folie à deux tailor made for a society with an insatiable appetite for true crime depravity. Such is the appeal of this story that, in a twist of theatrical fate, squaring off across the street from one another on Los Angeles’s “theatre row” (a hopeful sounding title for this sad, scrappy little patch of road) are two very different and illuminating plays about the murder and its famous perpetrators. Such happy accidents are not unheard of in the theatre (the competing musical adaptations of The Wild Party in 2000 spring to mind) and the opportunity for such close comparison only enriches the experience of either if also highlighting the deficiencies of both. Daniel Henning’s Dickie and Babe and Steven Dolginoff’s Thrill Me are hardly the first works of art to be inspired by this story, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (more about which later) and the abysmal Sandra Bullock vehicle Murder By Numbers are only two cinematic adaptations of, what critic Dennis Lim calls “a bulging dossier of celluloid case studies” inspired by the pair. After almost 100 years of coverage and analysis, myriad movies, plays and books, is there anything left to say about these two pathetic people?
The production currently playing at the Blank Theatre Company certainly thinks so. Researched as if it were the Kennedy assassination, Henning’s Dickie and Babe (as our “heroes” called each other) is given the movie-of-the-week subtitle “the TRUTH about Leopold and Loeb.” With documentary-like diligence, and no small quotient of professionalism, the show recreates the point-by-point narrative of Richard and Nathan’s relationship: the tale of two brilliant and privileged Jewish Chicago youth who, hopped up on Also Sprach Zarathustra, petty crimes, and drunken sexual dalliances with one another, murder 14-year old Bobby Franks for nothing more than thrill of getting away with it, all the while confirming their self-proclaimed status as “supermen.” And not the kind allergic to Kryptonite. So thorough is the show in detail that burning questions about which species of bird Leopold wrote ornithological papers about are at long last answered. (The Kirtland Warbler, if it’s been keeping you up at night.) While there is something to be admired about this exhausting commitment to the facts of the story, the Dragnet approach ultimately keeps the show from forming satisfying thematic or dramatic momentum.
Nathan Leopold (Aaron Himmelstein) is portrayed as a painfully reticent, preternaturally intelligent, bookish young boy with (oy!) mommy issues (Vicki Lewis, direct from the shtetl). Despite his appearance in almost every scene he remains a tantalizing cipher. Are his murderous instincts a mere means to his lustful ends? Does he really justify the crime as the act of a purely “rational” Nietzschean superman, above the moral codes of ordinary mortals, or is this merely a front for his darker impulses? To Henning’s credit such questions are never answered. Such neat conclusions are forever hidden to us, and, as portrayed by Himmelstein, perhaps they were hidden to Leopold as well; no hint of passion or madness ever cracks his carapace of detached rationality. Richard Loeb meanwhile, as portrayed by Nick Niven, is an adolescent prankster with a penchant for detective comics and a total absence of moral code. The man wears sociopathy on his sleeve. The romantic fumbling between the two boys is presented as an awkward compromise between the pining Leopold and the opportunistic Loeb, who essentially whores himself out in return for Babe’s assistance with criminal activities. While no doubt the official record supports this view of their relationship one can’t help but wonder if their tête-à-têtes were a bit more complicated.
A more up-front, Brechtian style of docudrama might have served Henning’s ambitions better. A structure more in line with the declarative format of David Hare’s Stuff Happens or Moises Kaufman’s oeuvre would have embraced the limitations of “theatre of journalism” instead of highlighting its faults. Still, competence abounds. The action is slick and smartly staged; so smartly in fact that the script, sodden with minutia, can at times seem positively buoyant. Henning also has the right idea with his myriad period touches. Wittiest of all, the boys commit the murder with "Rhapsody in Blue" as an underscore, a piquant touch seeing as Gershwin’s masterpiece had been written only earlier that year.
With its cast of eight actors, most of whom play a variety roles, Dickie and Babe is a surprisingly big project and its myriad roster of characters allows only our eponymous protagonists any substance; the rest are either throw away placeholders or odd diversions, like Vicki Lewis’s excessive and superfluous jazz-age moll. While this talented actress’s scene leaves no doubt she would make a world-class Miss Adelaide, the whole thing is an excessive star turn. Other actors fare better. Weston Blakesley as the suspender snapping legal legend Clarence Darrow provides the closest thing Dickie and Babe has to a climax with his impassioned courtroom oratory. Even better is Ugly Betty’s Michael Urie, playing a variety of roles and chewing the scenery with each. His is the performance you leave remembering. But, no matter how talented the cast one can’t shake the feeling that joys of Dickie and Babe would be equally satisfied by a low-budget History Channel special or a visit to the appropriate Wikipedia link.
The musical Thrill Me is a whole different animal all together. A lean, mean hundred minutes, Thrill Me trims away all the fat; with only two actors and a sparse set, it refashions the Leopold and Loeb case as a dark, erotic love story. I Do! I Do! for the homicidal set. Here Leopold is a wide-eyed naïf whose only distraction from bird watching is his obsessive passion for Richard who, in this incarnation, is the Nietzsche expert and intellectual mastermind. Thrill Me is a concise and sardonic show marred slightly by its too-modern score and often obvious, pedestrian lyrics. A late in the game plot twist is misguided as well, a superfluous device to add shock to a story that’s plenty shocking already. But Thrill Me, despite these caveats, easily finds its groove and more than justifies itself as a piece of theatre. There is purity in its minimalism and a throbbing vitality in its musicality. Though musicals have for a long time addressed serious and unexpected topics, the notion of this particular show could seem downright ludicrous at first blush, if not downright stupid. It’s a testimony of Dolginoff’s instincts as a dramatist (not to mention as a producer) to write the show as nothing more than a relentless, one-act two-hander, with sexy young actors for the cast to boot. A more reasonable, accurate and traditional approach along the lines of Dickie and Babe would have failed to achieve the heightened dramatic universe that musical theatre demands. The show's creepiest and most effective moment is Loeb’s gentle serenading of little Bobby Franks, enticing the youth to just take a ride in his “roadster.” Moments like this certainly provide the thrills that we are promised but, given the grisliness of the actual story, one wonders: at what cost? It’s fair to ask if such a sexy and titillating evening of theatre is a responsible or guilt-free way to spend a Friday night.
By untethering itself from any attempt at historicity, perhaps only Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope (Americanized and remade into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock) succeeds in navigating the minefield of intellectual hysteria, sadistic glee, and homosexual salaciousness that has transfixed the public from the beginning. Using the characters' sexuality as subtext and metaphor, the play is a shot of guilty pleasure, one hundred percent proof. The killers in Rope, fictional and English (perhaps deflecting a possibly nasty under current of anti-Semitism), describe the murder (which happens in the dark during the play's opening moments) with such sexually charged language as to leave every remotely astute member of the audience with little lingering confusion of the play's subliminal themes. The scintillation doesn’t end there. In a touch worthy of Titus Andronicus, as the murderers throw a dinner party, the guests feast upon a banquet under which the victim is neatly stored. While one might want to read some social or existential commentary into such a place setting, the device acts mostly as like an Agatha Christie suspense builder. Finally an Oscar Wilde-like character, the murderers’ former teacher and intellectual hero, introduces a dash of camp to the proceedings and exposes the boys’ crime. Rope is clearly no great work of lasting art, but it nonetheless provides the most distilled enjoyment of everything that keeps us coming back to those two boys from Chicago but with none of the very real moral precariousness that attends treating Leopold and Loeb as any kind of heroes or worse yet, gay martyrs.
From the case of the brilliant philosopher Krystian Bala who, just a few years ago, after mixing in some Derrida and Foucault along with his Nietzsche killed a man and then wrote a “fictional” novel about it, to the preppy intruders in Michael Haneke’s just re-made nightmare of a film Funny Games (and I mean that in a good way), the ghosts of Leopold and Loeb haunt us still. After 84 years, perhaps it is time to close the book on the pair lest our own baser interests get the better of us. Curiosity about the abstruse but all-too comprehensible connection between genius and madness will never abate the species as long as the more mysterious workings of our minds remain so murky and inaccessible. The abiding fascination with the fictional Hannibal Lecter is testimony to that.
Leopold and Loeb’s was a modern crime, perhaps the first. Divorced from motive, the evil that men do now had no meaning, no purpose beyond itself. God was dead and so was Bobby Franks. Though any casual viewer of CSI and Law & Order would have easily solved their “perfect murder” today, Leopold’s and Loeb’s real crime, the “perfect crime,” was opening a modern Pandora’s Box, for now bright boys could be madmen and madmen celebrities. The public can’t get enough of it. No work of theatre can atone for that.