Murder most foul, indeed. Two rich kids from Chicago decide to kill someone to exhibit their immense intelligence and overall superiority. Not a story from a novel, although it’s been novelized. It’s the Leopold and Loeb case from 1924.
Never the Sinner, which opened this past weekend at the New Jewish Theatre, focuses as much on the personalities involved as on the story, although the tale itself is clear and understandable for those who haven’t heard it before.
Pete Winfrey is the exuberant, volatile Richard Loeb, who meets his pal Nathan Leopold, played by Jack Zanger, at the University of Chicago where they bond over reading Nietzche’s Superman. Zanger’s Leopold is quiet, intense, smoothly moving between hesitant and hungry. The attraction between the two is electric, and if the audience has any doubts about it, they have only to watch Zanger’s face when Winfrey introduces him to a girlfriend, Maggie Conroy. Conroy, John Reidy and Will Bonfiglio all play multiple roles here, primarily as reporters for newspapers, often as much scandal sheets as bearers of truth, depending on the whim of the publisher. (The National Enquirer had nothing on some of these rags.)
Loeb’s family hired the famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow to represent the young men, and much of the second act revolves around the battle between John Flack’s Darrow and Robert Crowe, the state’s attorney arguing the case, played by Eric Dean White. Darrow’s an easy man to caricature, certainly, his bulk and his famously disheveled appearance giving an easy target. Flack, however, suggests Darrow with just his posture and a slight rumpling of his gray suit. It’s a bravura performance; White stands up to him well, but the character really doesn’t have enough weapons to fight Darrow’s (12 hours in real time) argument on the nature of capital punishment, the consequences of which have echoed down through the ensuing near-century.
The wonderful set from Peter and Margery Spack is on the theme of ornithology, one of Leopold’s passions; Peter Spack also acted as the scenic charge artist for much of the hands-on work. The lighting, an integral part of the visuals, is from the mind of Maureen Berry. Their work is a major part of the near-hypnotic effect of the play.
This is one of the earliest works from playwright John Logan, whose play Red was such a stunner at the Rep about six years ago. It labors slightly toward the end, and certainly is more about the characters than the crime itself. Still, given that, it’s an enthralling piece of work, beautifully handled by director Rick Dildine. Another piece of excellent work both onstage and off, from NJT this year.
Never the Sinner
through April 2, 2017
The New Jewish Theatre
The Wool Family Studio
Jewish Community Center Staenberg Family Complex
2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur