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A CurtainUp Review
Never The Sinner

Never The Sinner Moves Off Broadway

When Les Gutman told me he was going to be reviewing a play about the trial of the century — -the one in which the legendary Clarence Darrow defended two teen agers who had committed a thrill crime—-- I couldn't help wonderingwhat could be worth yet another dramatic rehash of the Leopold and Loeb case. As Les' review made amply clear, however, this was far from a rehash but a distinctly fresh undertaking in terms of script, staging and performance.

Never the Sinner'smove from Arlington to Off-Broadway was a completely unexpected opportunity for us to compare notes. While widely produced since John Logan wrote it in 1985 and the recipient of the prestigious Joseph Jefferson Award in Chicago for outstanding new play, Never the Sinner's hope for reaching wider audiences rides on the foresight and courage of small theaters. Like the Signature Theatre! Like the American Jewish Theatre which has brought the Signature production almost100% intact to West Twenty-Sixth Street! Except for changing the address and dates in our fact box at the end, and commenting briefly on two of the actors not from the earlier production cast, we have no disagreements with Les' review.

If we were to add anythingto his praises it would be to comment on some of director Ethan McSweeney's noteworthy small touches; for example, the brief bits of dancing by Loeb and, most especially, the scene where Loeb forces the ever awkward Leopold tofollow in his footsteps. A wonderfully symbolic bit of business! We'd also mention how much we enjoyed John Logan's phrasemanship; to wit, a reporter's description of the prosecutor as a "a slick symphony of sinewy ambition."

This is indeed a theatrical experience that holds us in its grip even though the outcome will for most be familiar. The surprise comes from the way the playwright and this creative team involve us in this enduringly fascinating human puzzle, sending us out the door satisfied even though none of the pieces have fallen into place. Given artistic director Stanley Brechner's track record for giving worthy plays a leg up to longer runs at larger venues, Never the Sinner, may with enough critical and word-of-mouth support enjoy not only a successful run at his little theater but at a second home further uptown (the American Place?!?).

A few comments on how the production fared in its move to the American Jewish Theatre. . Since the American Jewish, like the Signature, is a small theater with a stage surrounded by three sections of seats, the designers were able to recreate the highly effective set and lighting. Unfortunately they were stuck with this venue's awkward columns. However, as those columns have not interfered with audiences' appreciation of good material presented in the past, they are minor annoyances in the production's overall success.

I can't make comparisons between the three members of the DC cast and their NY replacements -- Robert Hogan as Clarence Darrow and Jurian Hughes as the female reporter #2 and Paul Mullins as reporter #1 -- but all play their parts with feeling and authenticity.

As for the two young actors playing Leopold and Loeb, they are not just good, but brilliant. If being key players in a New York show is at all daunting, (as even Off-Broadway can be to unknown performers), it doesn't show. Their performances are self-assured and meticulous in every detail. Keep your eyes on Leopold's hands, fingertips touching and fidgeting in act one. Watch Loeb's hand snaking seductively across Leopold's cheeks. See the little muscle flickering in Loeb's cheek as his self-assured bravado begins to buckle. While this is not a play to recommend only for the acting, the acting certainly adds mightily to the sum of Never theSinner's very solid parts.

If the play suffers from any flaws, it's a slight flagging in the pace during the second act. However, given what an enormous amount of information the playwright had to sift through (Darrow's actual summation ran to a hundred pages), you can appreciate how difficult it must have been to create this taut a drama from such a mass of data.

In case you're curious about the title, it comes from a line of dialogue by Darrow during a confrontation with the prosecutor:
I could see the sin . . . I could hate the sin . . .but never the sinner.
Production Notes
By John Logan 
starring Jason Patrick Bowcutt, Michael Solomon and Robert Hogan
Directed by Ethan McSweeny 
American Jewish Theater, 307 W. 26th St. (633-9797)
Performances begin 11/22/97 (opens 11/30)
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 12/01/97

Les Gutman's review of the DC Production

Early on in his representation of Leopold and Loeb, Clarence Darrow asks his teenage clients a question lawyers never ask:

    " Why?"

To which Nathan Leopold responds:

    "I don't think you'd understand."

In Never the Sinner, John Logan's enormously thought-provoking play about the troubling Leopold and Loeb murder case, the pursuit of understanding is the theatrical equivalent of quicksand.

The arrival on the East Coast of this winner of Chicago's Jefferson Award, which has been presented around the world and even filmed for British television, is both overdue and welcome. It uses courtroom drama, psychological profiles and press reporting to tell its story, but it is more than the sum of its parts. Putting time and place on a seemingly random pogo stick, it skillfully blends these elements into an exceptionally well-paced, compelling and sharply directed story. Using linear reasoning to fathom the complexities of this case would be far less enlightening.
For anyone not already familiar with this "crime of the century" (our own fin de siècle perch now makes this expression almost comical but it has been the subject of at least three films and over fifty books), Nathan Leopold (Jason Patrick Bowcutt) and William Loeb (Michael Solomon) were brilliant, rich Chicago teenagers in the roaring twenties who savagely murdered a fourteen year old boy -- for no good reason. When the body was found and they were linked to the crime, they confessed. Their families hired Clarence Darrow (the greatest lawyer of the century, from any perch) to save their necks. Darrow (James J. Lawless) tried -- but indeed failed -- to explain his clients' motivations. He succeeded however -- he saved the boys' lives -- by a different approach.

Logan creatively illuminates the proffered explanations; to be specific: . . .The philosophical - the boys were devotees of Nietzsche, and fancied themselves supermen.

. . .The intellectual - the murder was an experiment, taken too far

The romantic - "I'll do anything for love," again to the extreme . . .The psychological - the boys suffered from arrested development, notwithstanding their genius

All are roads that never reach a destination. No one knows why this murder occurred. Neither Logan nor director Ethan McSweeny lead us to an answer. This is not a play for those searching for assuagement.

Logan follows Darrow's agenda. He causes us to consider what we dare not contemplate: that the building blocks that made this murder possible are present (if hopefully suppressed) in each of us. We must accept these teenage "monsters" as human beings. Then, he asks us whether it is not equally monstrous that society abandons mercy and justifies the act of capital punishment. It is a chilling and unpleasant exercise: to return to the items delineated above and analyze the motivations for capital punishment in that context.

An aside: whether this exercise "chills" may depend in large part on one's preconceived notions about capital punishment. This is a debate that has progressed not at all in the intervening 73 years. I didn't require much persuasion. Neither did the judge. It is said he was crying at the end of Darrow's summation.

At the heart of Never the Sinner are the portraits of these two complicated boys. Subtly defined and shifting constantly, they are not caricatures but confounding and contradictory adolescents. Logan shows the facets of their personalities by juxtaposing scenes in court with scenes from the previous year, scenes with psychiatrists and scenes with each other. McSweeny's meticulous staging underscores this beautifully, even shifting perspective on Signature Theatre's thrust stage.

A sense of structure and direction is maintained by a chorus of three reporters. All of this interwoven with the trial - a battle between Darrow and State's Attorney Crowe (Glen Pannell), and the witnesses they present and cross-examine.

The two young actors master unimaginably convoluted portrayals, and do so with great sophistication. There is no clarity in these roles, and there is no stability in their characters. There is a great temptation for an actor to find these characters. Their great success is that they do not: we are not permitted to be repulsed by them, nor can we feel sorry for them. Either would devalue the inquiry, and make the answers easy.

Jason Patrick Bowcutt's Leopold is a social failure, fascinated by ornithology and obsessed with Loeb. He is frightening in the way mad scientists are: clinical and hyper-analytical -- blind to ordinary concerns. Everything to him is science. Loeb, by contrast, appears self-assured, handsome and outgoing. Crime is simply his way of having fun, and his pleasure is mindless. Everything to him is adventure. If they are monsters, they are of different breeds.

Underneath, another dimension appears. Leopold, despite his devotion to Loeb, hears his own drumbeat. We see hints of an assertiveness yet-to-manifest. Solomon's Loeb, superficially full of bravado, gives away subtle secrets. It is he, not Leopold, who is nervously tapping his fingers and tapping his feet during their crime. Later, it is he, not the supposedly obsessed Leopold, who feels abandoned and needy.

In an equally difficult role, James J. Lawless has the unenviable task of replicating the greatest orator of the twentieth century. Homespun, unintimidating and with a studied dishevelment, Lawless plays Darrow simultaneously low-key and full of fire. If he does not bring the audience to tears, at least we see a glimpse of Darrow's legendary persuasiveness. As his frustrated opponent, Pannell's Crowe is lucid and dutifully persuasive as well.

Lou Stancari's set is simple and unusual. A backdrop which looks something like an enormous floor-to-ceiling étagère serves as both a convenient storage unit for props and other icons and as a piece of scenery as well. The other design elements are well-executed, especially the exceptional sound design and music by David Maddox.

Never the Sinner deserves to be seen by a far larger audience than its current limited run can possibly accomodate. In fact, it deserves the kind of attention visited on two off-Broadway productions of the past season, How I Learned to Drive and Gross Indecency

By John Logan 
starring Jason Patrick Bowcutt, Michael Solomon and James J. Lawless 
Directed by Ethan McSweeny 
Signature Theatre, 3806 S. Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington VA (703) 218-6500 
August 19 - September 28, 1997 
Transfers to Rep Stage, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia MD 
October 10 - October 26