These days John Logan is best known for his screenplays for the mega-hit James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” his television series, “Penny Dreadful,” and his 2010 Tony Award-winning play, “Red,” about the artist Mark Rothko.
But the earliest indication of Logan’s dramatic skill manifested itself back in the early 1980s when, while still an undergraduate at Northwestern University, he wrote his first play, “Never the Sinner.” An extraordinarily sophisticated, provocative, emotionally insidious piece of work, it recounted the shocking and notorious 1924 case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. They are, of course, the wealthy, intellectually gifted University of Chicago students who grew up in the Hyde Park/Kenwood neighborhood, and kidnapped and brutally murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks (a relative of Loeb’s). The two were saved from the death penalty only because of the fervent arguments of civil libertarian Clarence Darrow, their fabled defense attorney.
First staged at Northwestern (whose archives contained a treasure trove of original documents related to the case), and then, in 1985, given its first professional production by the now defunct Stormfield Theatre, “Never the Sinner” is now receiving an ideally cast, handsomely designed revival at Victory Gardens under the flawless direction of Gary Griffin.
‘NEVER THE SINNER’
When: Through Dec. 6
Where: Victor Gardens, Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $15 – $60
Info: (773) 871-3000; www.victorygardens.org
Run time: 95 minutes, with one intermission
Leopold and Loeb committed their crime because, like the twisted, highly educated, but dangerously underdeveloped adolescents they were, they simply wanted to see if they could do it, and get away with it. But humming beneath their appalling act was a profoundly unresolved homosexual relationship, and a complex power play that engaged the very different, but sickly synergistic personalities at work. Logan’s play, which depends heavily on the perfectly tuned psychological interplay of Leopold and Loeb, certainly finds that component here.
Loeb (Jordan Brodess, who expertly captures his character’s smirky nature, but also lets us see the cracks), was the cold, smug, suave one with a hunger for power and celebrity, a taste for blood, and an almost erotic obsession with crime. He was particularly taken with Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of the “superman” — the individual possessed of extraordinary capabilities, whose superior intellect put him above the laws and moral code of the average person. Loeb had a way with girls, too, though they held no interest except for the degree to which he could manipulate them.
Leopold (Japhet Balaban, who beautifully suggests the warring impulses in his character), was the linguist and ornithologist — the truly brilliant one. Nerdier, more sensitive and more nervous than Loeb, at least initially, he acts primarily out of his sexual and romantic need for Loeb, and (without negating his guilt in any way), he was undone by those desires.
The play finds its complex soul with the arrival of Darrow, who is portrayed by Keith Kupferer in a tour de force turn that combines the lawyer’s wily folksiness with palpable contempt (as well as an uncanny understanding) of his clients.
Kupferer delivers Darrow’s potent argument against capital punishment with such subtlety that you sense why the man won the case against all odds. You can listen intently to him, even if you believe the two should fry.
Derek Hasenstab, as prosecutor Robert Crowe, also is impressive as he makes the case for the guilty verdict. But the judge in the case (Darrow saw to it that Leopold and Loeb pleaded guilty and so avoided a jury trial) clearly was swayed by Darrow. Celeste M. Cooper, the only woman in the play, turns in a wonderfully zesty performance as Loeb’s so-called girlfriend, and there is fine work by Bill Bannon and Demetrios Troy, as well.
Kurtis Boetcher’s set, lit by Keith Parham, is wrapped in flocked, moss green wallpaper to suggest the posh homes of the murderers, and Michael Stanfill’s superb projection design — awash in vintage Hyde Park locations — give the story a rich and recognizable third dimension. Janice Pytel’s character-defining costumes are perfection, as is Andre Pluess’s sound design.
The play itself is a seamless collage of newspaper accounts, trial transcripts, psychological evaluations and fictional dialogue that is revealed chronologically except for a single crucial scene at the very end that is sure to catch you by surprise. After seeing “Never the Sinner” you might want to read about the lives of Leopold and Loeb after they were sent to prison. Those stories would make for an entirely fascinating epilogue.