Never the Sinner
Artists Repertory Theatre
Through Feb 25

The papers had dubbed it "the crime of the century," and yet 1924's single murder by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb would barely be a blip on today's news radar. Even those Chicago newspapers would soon be full of stories about the mob's battles with the G-men. Why then does the story of Leopold and Loeb survive into today's' collective consciousness?

This is a question that playwright and screenwriter John Logan fails to answer in his play based on the the incident, even though it's clear that Logan knows what he's talking about. He researched the Leopold and Loeb case for the last 20 years, presenting the original version back in 1983, and updating it into the revised show which is enjoying its West Coast premiere at A.R.T.

Nineteen-year-old Leopold (played by Michael Burke) is a brilliant but withdrawn bird-watcher who has fallen in with 18-year-old Loeb (David Wells), a charismatic and slightly predatory ladies man. Both are dripping in their parents' monies, and both believe themselves to be examples of Nietzche's ubermen, better and smarter than normal humans. Leopold is in love with Loeb, and Loeb trades gay sex for ever-increasing crimes that the two of them commit. Eventually, they plan and execute the murder of a 14-year-old neighbor boy. The second half of the play details their trial, with the two "boys" represented by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow (Tobias Anderson) and prosecuted by beleaguered Robert Crowe (Eric Hull).

As the headlines blare and the experts dissect them, Leopold and Loeb find their relationship inextricably changing, and it's only Darrow's powerful arguments that will keep them from getting hanged. Burke and Wells are fabulous, all tailored suits and Valentino-slick hair; though it's hard to imagine Loeb's often obnoxious actions going far in today's society, it mirrors what most of us think about rich elitist bastards.

A ringer for character actor Ronny Cox, Anderson channels Ray Walston's voice and a set of eyebrows that almost need their own muppeteers into a Darrow whose every word must be paid attention (he's also performing a one-man show about Darrow on February 18-19). Hull does his damndest to keep up, both as a character and as an actor, and leaves the stage sopping wet from his spit-spray performance.

Never the Sinner is manipulative, however, in a way that leaves me ambivalent. Darrow's defense of the "boys" speaks often to their homosexuality, and although the dialogue may sound modernist, if the same lines were spoken by Lon Mabon, we'd want to throw shit-bombs at him. Also, though a menorah is visible on the set's backdrop, nothing is ever mentioned of the "boys" Jewish background (or their victim's) and the combination of Nietzche quotes and a stage that is vaguely reminiscent of a swastika made me question the obvious omission.

As Darrow says, it's "primary to rendering of punishment that we understand their motivations." Never the Sinner is a strongly-acted, well-produced examination of those motivations, but does little to explain why the story has holds on us today. ANDY MANGELS