Empty Souls

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story

If all the world's a stage, then surely a courtroom is the place to see some of the best drama. Just think of Johnnie Cochran, striding across a courtroom and slamming down his briefcase, or O.J. Simpson, struggling to squeeze his huge hand into the glove that didn't fit. A courtroom can be more than just a stop in the criminal justice system: It also can be the place where the human psyche is put under a microscope.

Of course it didn't take the Juice's trial to make that point. Back in 1924 the nation was gripped by the sensationalistic trial of two young men who killed for a thrill. The case of Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb, with its chilling testimony and intense public interest, became a model for media coverage in the broadcast era. What caused two wealthy, seemingly intelligent young men randomly to choose fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks and to bludgeon and stab him to death? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

And, for those who still want to know about Leopold and Loeb, the New Theatre's production of Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story successfully captures the enigma and excitement of what was dubbed at the time the "Trial of the Century." Not only does the play explore the dark motives behind the killing, it offers telling insights into the way we have come to expect sensational trials to be covered.

Paul Tei and Christopher Carlisle take on the sins of the killers
Asela Torres
Paul Tei and Christopher Carlisle take on the sins of the killers

Details

Written by John Logan. Directed by Rafael de Acha. Starring Christopher Carlisle, Paul Tei, John Barnett, Wayne Robinson, Lisa Morgan, and Robert Maxwell.
Through June 11. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave, Coral Gables; 305-443-5909.

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Leopold (Christopher Carlisle) and Loeb (Paul Tei) made for a particularly infamous pair of killers, at least by the standards of the Twenties. Privileged and intellectual, they also happened to be lovers. The two hit upon the idea of a random murder after dabbling in Nietzsche and embracing the German philosopher's description of the Übermensch, or "Superman," who is "aloof to the petty concerns of mankind."

It is Leopold who patiently interprets Nietzsche for an increasingly enthusiastic Loeb, explaining how an Übermensch is obligated to "recognize his superiority" and how he is exempt "from the laws that bind the common run of humanity." This belief becomes the cornerstone for their actions, but their lack of emotion about their actions is the compelling aspect of these characters. Actors Carlisle and Tei intelligently build their Leopold and Loeb around this central emptiness, never rationalizing or redeeming it. Dramatic movement to and from the events that lead up to the trial and the trial itself weave a compelling psychological portrait of the two young men.

Imagine the challenge that faces any actor who has to spout Nietzsche, but Carlisle and Tei show they're up to the task. They display uncanny emotional control, which is essential to the success of the portrayals. They are alternately animated and subdued. Loeb yawns and is bored on a bird watch; Leopold is fascinated and impassioned.

Carlisle plays Leopold as the classic social outsider, shoulders slightly stooped and sporting thick glasses. Leopold is closed off and analytical, but Carlisle lends sarcasm to the role by his tone, his way of musing and speculating before answering a question, and his often emotionless face and monotone voice.

By contrast Tei brings charm and emotional aggressiveness to his role as Loeb. This comes from his grandiose, even elegant, mannerisms mixed with boyishness.

The error would be for the actors to portray their characters as they are portrayed by the reporters at the beginning of the trial: Loeb as "bright and airy" and Leopold as "dark and brooding." Carlisle and Tei show an intimate knowledge of their characters, because they reveal the light and dark aspects that exist in both Leopold and Loeb. Tei's Loeb, for example, exudes boyish excitement over everything -- from a baseball game to finding a murder victim.

The actors maintain the complicity that is inherent to the script; alone neither character would have been capable of committing such an act. They are equally guilty. One of the most enigmatic and disturbing aspects of their characters is that they have no remorse for having killed, and no explanation.

"Dick, why did we kill Bobby Franks?" Leopold asks Loeb.

"I don't know," Loeb responds.

In his final exchange with his clients, defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, played by John Barnett, sums up the puzzling, ultimately frustrating, nature of the case: "You know, boys, not a day goes by that I don't kick myself for taking this case, but then I always tell myself, I tell myself, No, no, there's some truth here if I can just find it. If I can just ask the right question, then it will all come out, all their fear and horror and remorse."

Never the Sinner not only opens a window into the emptiness of the two killers, it offers an interesting perspective on the drama of news coverage. Courtroom drama and journalistic sensationalism really mushroomed with the birth of radio as a mass medium.

In the sensationalism of the reporters' coverage of the trial, we find the seeds of the hysteria and scandals that are now digitally imaged and invade our TV screens 24 hours a day. Like the radio audience for Leopold and Loeb, we're still waiting to be stunned, but more frequently. Never the Sinner is an accurate historical and sociological reference point for understanding the beginnings of broadcast news coverage and the topics it covered (or uncovered), such as homosexuality and the death penalty. In this play we find what is not so easily revealed in the deluge of cable programming (even more so than in talk shows, pornography, and human drama): The courtroom is still one of the most voyeuristic, and therefore most thrilling, lenses through which to examine human behavior. It allows unrestrained and "justified" prodding into the human psyche and ultimately leaves us baffled.

The reporters, played by Lisa Morgan and Robert Maxwell, are at times subdued and at other times wildly declarative and melodramatic. Their heightened descriptions of the two killers provide an excellent portrayal of the cub and veteran reporter, keeping the audience historically rooted in a time where people sat around radios to get information about their city and their world.

The play's use of sound also reinforces this time period. Clips of music and other news occurring at the time keep us grounded in the Twenties, and the use of sound effects helps the minimalist stage design carry us from the courtroom, to the car where Bobby was killed, to the marsh where the body was dumped. The sound technology expands the stage, creating transitions that are not only fluid but also high-energy, heightening the building dramatic tension of the trial.

And the setting doesn't distract from the strong performances. The stage is bare with a black floor, two benches and two tables (one of each on either side of the stage), and a couple of chairs on stage left for the reporters. Nothing is more effective than a simple piece of furniture when the acting surrounding it is strong. A simple bench becomes seating in a car, a jail, a park, and a prison yard. The setting complements the acting and drama instead of distracting the audience or obstructing the view.

All of the actors show incredible stamina and energy (they are all on the stage the entire time), and Morgan and Maxwell show seemingly effortless versatility: Morgan as a reporter, a psychiatrist, and Germaine, the girlfriend of Loeb; Maxwell as a reporter, a psychiatrist, and a detective.

As in any trial, the antagonism between the prosecution and defense is as crucial to the success of the drama as the principles for which they are fighting. Robert Crowe, played by Wayne Robinson, is the slick, young, cutthroat prosecution attorney. Robinson sometimes comes off a little more like a used-car salesman than a clever yet wily lawyer. Barnett's Clarence Darrow is the older, seasoned, battle-worn defense attorney. Although both actors bring a lot of energy to their characters and the antagonism between prosecution and defense is strong, a more interesting and convincing dynamic could have been achieved between the two by making their antagonism more subtle. Darrow's final monologue seems a bit over the top. It is as though, in his previous statement, he has crescendoed, and there's nowhere else to go.

Never the Sinner ends appropriately at the beginning. We see Leopold and Loeb where they first met, at a university party. They're the superior outcasts: two wealthy young men, two riddles. The play begins where it ends, not offering any explanation or even any theory, but the trip is psychologically compelling and dramatically moving.

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