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Never The Sinner
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:
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