Chicago Theatre Review
The Face Behind the Crime
Never the Sinner – Victory Gardens Theatre
Called The Crime of the Century, during the summer of 1924 Chicago witnessed the deplorable kidnapping and murder of a young boy named Bobby Franks, resulting in the subsequent arrest and trial of two wealthy college students. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were a couple of bored, privileged young men studying at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park. These two highly intelligent boys met at a party and became unlikely friends. Richard Loeb was a good-looking ladies man, given to flirtation and fantasies, while Nathan Leopold was a quiet loner who found contentment in his books and birdwatching. The two young men shared a deep fascination with Nietzsche’s theory of the “superman,” and their barbaric act was an experiment to determine if they could, as supermen, commit the perfect murder.
Award-winning Playwright John Logan was inspired by Chicago’s legacy of dark crimes when he wrote this, his first play, while studying at Northwestern University. His other plays include “Hauptmann,” about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, “Riverside,” a musical melodrama set at Chicago’s famous old amusement park, and the 2010 Tony Award-winning Best Play, “Red.” Logan’s play doesn’t dwell on the actual crime, nor does it debate political arguments about capital punishment. Instead, the playwright provides a human face for the two young men responsible for the crime. He also focuses attention on the essence of these two young men, their dark decent toward power, their homosexual relationship, as well as the role their attorney, Clarence Darrow, played in helping the boys escape the hangman’s noose.
Directed with feeling and finesse by Gary Griffin, this production has two excellent actors in the leading roles. Japhet Balaban is wonderful as the brilliant, sadly arrogant Nathan Leopold, the poor little rich boy who always felt unattractive, unloved and desperate for attention. Mr. Balaban conveys both this boy’s intellectual drive to commit the crime, yet his reservations at actually going through with the deed feels palpable. Handsome Jordan Brodress has Richard Loeb’s eye-popping good looks and contemptible smirk down pat. His cocky attitude is unflappable, even to the end. The way Mr. Brodress manipulates Balaban is comparable to watching a slick used car salesman closing in on his prospective customer. Together these two young actors are superb, and theatergoers won’t be able to take their eyes off of them. Watching how they work together, almost as a single unit, is both magical and frightening.
Keith Kupferer is unassuming yet smart as their attorney, the famous Clarence Darrow. When he finally loses his temper it’s because of his clients’ smugness and their refusal to take seriously the crime for which they’ve been accused. Mr. Kupferer has some of his best moments during his eloquent summation speech, but earlier on he tells a reporter that he hates the crime, the sin…but never the sinner. It’s the only way he’s able to defend such heinous criminals. The talented Derek Hasenstab is strong and convincing at Prosecuting Attorney, Robert Crowe. The remaining versatile cast includes Bill Bannon, Celeste M. Cooper and Demetrios Troy as a trio of reporters and other characters. Ms. Cooper is especially fine as a young woman with whom Loeb had shared a date. Her innocent girlish glee at having been escorted by such a handsome young lothario is fascinating to observe.
Gary Griffin’s finely directed production is like a well-played chess game. It’s a cat-and-mouse pursuit between two amoral young men who seem unable to understand or empathize with anyone else. It’s also a game of attraction and repeal between the two young men. Loeb and Leopold were friends, partners and, perhaps, even lovers. However, power and passion have never been played more honestly, and John Logan’s well-written play is a haunting examination of the human faces and minds behind one of history’s most senseless crimes.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 6-December 6 by Victory Gardens Theater at the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-871-3000 or by going to www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.